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Dealing with Defensive Employee Behavior

December 14, 2012 by Dr. Jon Warner in Self-Esteem

Dealing with Defensive Employee Behavior

We hear a lot about the need to build up our own personal levels or self-esteem or self-worth, especially during our teens and in early adulthood. The reason for this is simple. If our self-esteem is too low or too negative, we will not develop in positive ways or learn to get on with people as we should (often failing to become effective enough at communicating with others, working in teams or helping to manage change for example). The simple idea here is that we can’t readily like others and manage relationships with them well until we can learn how to like and manage ourselves well.

While these ideas from modern psychology are interesting and potentially accurate for many people in theory, pointing out that an individual has low self-esteem does little to change the situation and in practice leads to these individuals often developing coping approaches which may stay with them for years (and even life) if left to fester or they go unchallenged. Perhaps the most common of these is to develop what might be a whole range of defensive behaviors that act to protect the person (or prevent currently relatively low levels of self-esteem falling even lower). So what are these defensive behaviors?

When any adult individual feels threatened he or she may show some or many of the following physical signs of defensiveness in their behavior. They have been categorized into four clusters:

Emotional State/Behavior
  • Being erratic/agitated/worried
  • Not smiling/losing any sense of humor
  • Being overly obsessive
  • Being self-deprecating
  • Taking offence very easily
  • Feeling resigned/listlessness
Sensory response
  • Addictive behavior (smoking, drinking, eating, shopping, gambling, etc)
  • Having butterflies or tight stomach
  • Experiencing faster, shallow breathing
  • Experiencing increased heart rate
  • Head or body ache or showing illness
  • Skin feeling too hot/sweaty or too cold
Body language
  • Overly energetic body movements when talking (finger pointing/eyebrow arching)
  • Not moving at all (being zombie like)
  • Averting the eyes/looking down
  • Rolling the eyes/head shaking/gritted teeth
  • Being distracted/unfocused
  • Sudden tiredness/yawning/slump
  • Turning away/arms folded across body
Tone Of Voice/Vocal style
  • Mocking vocal expression
  • Mimicking the speaker
  • Speaking too loudly/raising voice
  • Speaking very softly
  • Mumbling/missing words in sentences
  • Speaking hurriedly all the time
  • Inappropriate laughter/giggling/fixed grin
  • Monotone or delayed response

Clearly not all of these will be exhibited (and not at the same time) but the chart above provides a useful list of the visually observable behavior that could be seen in a few of these areas and thereby give a clue that the person concerned is feeling somewhat defensive about a particular experience in the workplace.

In addition to physical defensive signs are the often more subtle but nonetheless observable mental signs of defensiveness that some individuals may exhibit when feeling defensive about a situation. Once again, only one or two of these may be shown at any one time but it may nonetheless signal that an alternative approach may be called for. As in the physical signs of defensiveness there are four categories or clusters of behavior to look out for.

Internal Dialogue
  • Feeling resentful; overly angry
  • Engaging in self-denial
  • Feeling confused
  • Felt need to work harder to please
  • Feeling anxious/up-tight
  • Feeling victimized
  • Feeling misunderstood
  • Feeling worthless
Defensive language
  • Personalizing everything
  • Being sarcastic/making cynical remarks
  • Withdrawing/being silent
  • Being evasive/Procrastinating
  • Selective deafness to people speaking
  • Rejecting a point out-of-hand
  • Agreeing too much/being compliant
  • Shifting blame to others
Attacking language
  • Always wanting to be right/correct
  • Being judgmental/argumentative
  • Trivializing people’s input/remarks
  • Haranguing behavior and remarks
  • Being overly critical/condescending
  • Acting in a childish manner
  • Intellectualizing/scoring points
Negotiating behavior
  • Jumping too quickly to conclusions
  • Over-explaining minor points
  • Preaching/evangelizing
  • Showing disinterest/boredom
  • Constant interrupting
  • Changing the subject frequently
  • Lying/distorting information

The goal in providing lists of physical and mental signs of possible defensiveness in the charts above is not to turn supervisors and managers into amateur psychologists or possible counselors to employees who may need professional help in some cases. However, it does aim to raise awareness in leaders at all levels that they are managing individuals who may be struggling to deal with a range of issues, with low self-esteem often being at the core of the challenges they face. By at least understanding or basically appreciating that defenses such as those described above are a coping mechanism, leaders can therefore perhaps adjust their approach or style (even in subtle ways) and help a given individual in more emotionally intelligent ways not to feel quite as marginalized and to feel that they are part of a supportive workplace climate in which that can learn to deal with any issues more readily, and perhaps develop a greater level of overall personal resilience.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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  1. RichardDecember 14, 2012 at 10:26 am

    My thanks for the insights provided by this article. Too often we lead/manage regardless blind to both the needs of others and indeed the negative effect of our own behavior. Very useful.

    • Dr. Jon WarnerDecember 16, 2012 at 9:30 pmAuthor

      Many thanks Richard.

    • Dr. Jon WarnerDecember 16, 2012 at 9:38 pmAuthor

      Thanks Richard.

  2. Chris LaitDecember 14, 2012 at 11:01 pm

    Hi Jon, Really illuminating. The question I’d like to ask, is this kind of behavior restricted to defensive employees, or is it present in the best of us? Put another way, are we all defensive from time to time and could learn something from this? I am fanatical about the value of self-awarness and found your piece really helpful. Best Wishes, Chris.

    • Dr. Jon WarnerDecember 16, 2012 at 9:32 pmAuthor

      Thanks Chris. Yes, I think you are right about defensiveness being latent in all of us. However, some people are a lot more defensive than others and it shows, it a manager, in an employee, in our own families etc. For me its often the hidden issue underneath many other surface behaviors.

  3. Ben Simonton (@BenSimonton)December 16, 2012 at 11:25 am

    Defensive behavior is a response to being told what to do or being treated with disrespect some other way. All of this stems from the actions and inactions of management. Management creates these problems and others by not knowing what to do to create a highly motivated, highly committed and fully engaged workforce. Most managements do know how to create a disengaged workforce but don’t realize it comes about as a result of management’s actions. Creating disengaged workforces is very common these days so employees exhibiting defensive, save myself first, behavior are the rule not the exception.

    Best regards, Ben

    • Dr. Jon WarnerDecember 16, 2012 at 9:34 pmAuthor

      Yes I think defensive behaviors left unchecked can become pretty toxic. Its why I think we need to raise the dabate around this subject more-a good book in this realm is Radical Collaboration by Jim Tamm and Ron Luyett

  4. Catherine MatticeDecember 16, 2012 at 6:52 pm

    Hi there – nice article. Though I was hoping to read more on actually dealing with defensive behaviors, as the article’s title suggests. Can you provide some insight in that regard?

    • Dr. Jon WarnerDecember 16, 2012 at 9:36 pmAuthor

      Thanks Catherine. I think the applied side of this will be the subject of a future article. In the short term the book I mentioned to Ben above (Radical collaboration) has some great information on dealing with it (at an individual level and as a third-party)

  5. JulianDecember 26, 2012 at 11:03 am

    The problem is ., how do i fix it?? Explain this DOC.

  6. Anne SandbergJune 15, 2013 at 4:00 pm

    This is very useful to me in considering how to give feedback to others who have taken assessments in looking for outward signs of defensiveness as well as educating them on inward signs of defensiveness they may be experiencing.

  7. Marie MartinApril 22, 2014 at 4:14 am

    While I agree that managers have the formal authoritative power to put employees into a defensive pattern – to imply that is ALWAYS the case is not terribly helpful to managers who truly want to help their employees to grow.

    During my first 360 (many years ago) I was told that some colleagues found me to be defensive. I can laugh about it now, but I did my very best to explain to the exasperated HR consultant who was providing my feedback – why I felt it was important to ‘explain myself’. My defensiveness was not my manager’s fault – it was a behaviour I had adopted over time.

    There is no benefit in black and white thinking that equates to us (employees) and them (managers), or in blaming managers for everything – especially on a leadership forum.

About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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