Targets use defensiveness as a means to “defend” what the target is doing. Typically, to prove that they have actually done what they are being accused of not doing. The goal is not aggression but rather protection of their workplace behavior.
Aggressors, on the other hand, use defensiveness as a way to cover up and as a tool to keep people out of the loop. Defensiveness for the aggressor is an act of aggression and a form of workplace violence. Aggressors use defensiveness to preserve the illusion that they are working hard for the organization and that they are at the top of their game. Defensiveness is also exercised by aggressors to manipulate the environment and influence the behavior of others in the room.
I was recently in a meeting where a discussion ensued around incorporating another program into a department. The discussion focused on the purpose of this program and in particular the advantages of a narrow focus versus a broader perspective. The conversation was very general and non-threatening. Nothing arose in the discussion that was directly aimed at the person who was identified as the possible director of this program. However, the aggressor, also the potential director, became both verbally and physically defensive. Physically the person began moving around in their chair, shuffling papers and rolling their eyes. Verbally the person began talking over everyone else making statements such as “I am the best person for the job and this is my area of expertise.” These statements were an attempt by the aggressor to take away from the actual conversation which was valuable and productive. The defensiveness was an attempt to refocus back on the aggressor and their abilities. If the conversation had been allowed to persist, the risk for the aggressor was that the program direction may have been expanded and their skills and abilities may not have been a good fit. Fortunately for the aggressor,in this case, the conversation was halted and the poor workplace behavior was rewarded.
Bystanders use defensiveness for both reasons—to defend themselves and to deflect. They are in a unique situation as they frequently flip flop between being loyal to the aggressor or the target. The bystander uses defensiveness as both a means of protection and a means of workplace aggression depending on circumstances they find themselves in.
I recommend that we try to get away from using defensiveness behavior in the workplace. No matter who is being defensive, it is not a productive use of time and can be a harmful for the overall workplace environment.
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