Defensiveness Case Study


Self-knowledge is a mission critical key to success, and defensiveness blocks your access to that key. Once people experience your defensiveness, they will give you less feedbac, and, over time, you’ll rely increasingly on inaccurate self-perception. Your blind spots will multiply, and eventually one of them will stall your career.

Defensive people have the potential to be strong leaders, but they often believe that everyone needs to agree with their vision, opinions, and solutions to be successful in the organization. Do any of the following scenarios sound familiar?

  • They prefer and hire people who are like them, with similar backgrounds and career paths or people who agree with everything they say.
  • They will push existing staff to become more like them (e.g., encouraging people to attend their alma mater).
  • They only implement the ideas that are their own.
  • They get upset at any messenger who brings bad news.
  • They avoid resistance by hiring people who need a lot of praise and have a natural tendency to avoid conflict.

Impact if Unresolved

  • Stifled creativity and innovation
  • Lagged productivity
  • Limited collaboration
  • Frustrated future leaders may leave
  • Create others who only hire “yes” people

Options For Improvement

Leaders can read any of the thousands of self-help books out there about how to be a great leader or attend any number of internal or external training classes. Unfortunately, these options require leaders to not only be open to change, but to drive it alone and hold themselves accountable for that change.  The likelihood of a long-term meaningful change leveraging these approaches is low.


Coaching is a great option because it will help defensive leaders gain new self-awareness about why they feel that “if you want something done right you have to do it yourself.” This is likely a blind spot, and it is probably driven by an insecurity related to past experiences. A good personality assessment and some 360° feedback would highlight the blind spot. In the debrief with a coach that has built rapport with a defensive leader is likely to gain a better understanding about why he/she functions that way. The discussion will also include how the behavior may be causing a plateau in both the individual’s career and the performance in the department. None of this hands-on work would be accomplished with the other options listed above. Managing defensive responses, and “I’m smarter than you” attitudes is difficult without the coach as skill builder and cheerleader because it requires a person to change his/her thinking and break ingrained patterns of behavior.

Coaching Anecdote

Our firm recently worked with a Director named Alex at the corporate headquarters of a large financial institution. Alex had high energy and an intense personality. In the early stages of his coaching engagement, he voiced frustration about the people around him and how they were not doing things the right way. The coach spent some time having Alex articulate what the “right way” meant to him. Alex passionately extolled upon the coach how hard he had worked to get to this point and how that work had made him successful. He had worked his way up through two different companies with pure grit. He had put himself through a top-ranked MBA program and paid for every dime himself. He was currently working Saturdays, Sundays, and at night, as the job required. He was working on financial certifications. And he could not figure out why the people around him did not see things the way he did.

Alex feuded with peers from other areas. He took the slightest disagreement as an affront, and he would passionately and animatedly defend his position. He got frustrated with people he mentored and managed that did not see the value in continuing their education immediately. He also had little patience for work that he felt stood still. If people had to put in extra time to get things moving, then they should be willing. They are salaried, after all.

It took some tough feedback from peers, his manager, and other members of management for Alex to step up and pay attention to coaching. The coach adeptly delivered the feedback as if he was partnering with Alex but did not sugar coat comments, such as “I can’t recall the last time I saw something innovative come from his area” or “no one works with Alex’s group, they just loop around him because he’s so difficult to work with.” As the coach and Alex explored the feedback, they dove further into what Alex was feeling in his most intense banter with peers. His response, “I feel like I’m at home growing up having a family debate.” Alex had grown up in a very intellectual household with two lawyers for parents. The natural state of conversation was passionately arguing and defending your point. The conversation then shifted to how different everyone’s background was and how they may not have the same values or respond to the same type of communication as Alex. He had been successful up until that point trying to win every discussion and trying to get people to emulate him as he had emulated his parents. Now that he had reached a certain level, his bulldozing approach was no longer working, but the realization that he was treating all conversations like “being at his childhood dinner table” helped Alex open up and approach things in a new way going forward. He and his coach created a development plan based on small wins and incremental behavior changes. By the end of the engagement, Alex was seeing the positive impact the changes were having and already receiving better feedback, plus he was now able to create new self-awareness for himself and course correct on the fly, when necessary.