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How Do I Handle Defensive Reactions?

Defensive reactions come in two forms: fight and flight.

Fight responses show up as angry rejections of what the appraiser has said or written. The individual may deny the accuracy of the appraiser’s information or blame others for problems and shortcomings. Nonverbal indicators of fight reactions are usually clear: The person may pound the desk or point his finger. She may raise her voice or fold her arms defiantly across her chest. She may stare and refuse to engage in a normal businesslike conversation.

Flight reactions are entirely different. Here the individual’s voice becomes quieter, not louder. She looks away, turns away. She speaks softly and agrees easily in order to change the subject. Where the individual displaying a fight reaction may discount any responsibility for the issue, the individual manifesting a flight reaction may take far more responsibility for a problem than the situation actually warrants.

Fight and flight reactions are hardwired, genetically based, normal human defense mechanisms for dealing with threatening situations. If your Stone Age ancestor stumbled upon a testy mastodon, his alternatives were flight, fight, or get trampled. Defensive reactions served a survival purpose. But they are out of place in the contemporary office.

Fight reactions are best handled by allowing the individual time to vent and encouraging the full expression of opinion. Most of these storms blow themselves out. Active listening is critical in dealing with fight reactions. Ask the individual for examples. Listen to what she has to say.

Hot Tip

In dealing with a fight reaction, your behavior should be the opposite of the individual’s. As her emotional temperature gets hotter, yours should get cooler. As the employee starts to speak more rapidly, you should allow more pauses in what you say. If the individual’s volume increases, you should lower your voice.

Flight reactions are subtler. The individual seeks metaphorically to flee the threatening situation. The easiest way is simply to agree with whatever is being said, change the subject, and move on.

The challenge to appraisers when flight reactions arise is to continue to focus on the performance deficiency until there is complete understanding. Too often, the appraiser is nervous about confronting Billie Jo with the fact that her performance was less than acceptable. But immediately upon being presented with the truth, Billie Jo says, ‘‘Yes. You’re right. I really did do a bad job this year. And I appreciate your bringing it to my attention. And you can count on me to do better in the future. I promise, I really will.’’

We tend to be so relieved about not having to go through an unpleasant confrontation that we accept Billie Jo’s hastily offered, doubtfully sincere assurances and move on. But if we accept her statement at face value, it’s unlikely that there will be a genuine commitment to change. That’s why the effective manager says, ‘‘Thanks, Billie Jo. I’m glad we both look at it the same way. But let’s actually go through analyzing what happened this year so that you can make some plans that will really make a difference in the upcoming twelve months.’’