The importance of understanding a leader’s defensive behaviours

Written by Sarah Rasmussen, Managing Consultant, Talogy

Think about all of the people you have encountered since you began your career. Inevitably you’ve had colleagues with different personalities and work styles – some of which you resonated with and some that may have been more of a challenge to navigate.

Now think of the best leader you have worked with throughout that time. What made them so great? What characteristics did they possess in their role that caused you to view them with such high esteem? And perhaps more importantly, what were they like on a bad day? What changed in the way they behaved at work? Did they display defensive behaviours, or did they handle difficulty with poise and composure?

The role emotional intelligence plays in leadership

Let’s face it, we all have times when it can be harder for us to come across as upbeat, positive, and supportive. It’s very likely that what sets this leader apart is their emotional intelligence (EI). People with high levels of EI display behaviours such as empathy and have an increased awareness of themselves and others.

Most researchers agree that having leaders with higher levels of EI is a catalyst to positive business outcomes such as increased team productivity and engagement. In one case, the research indicated that emotional intelligence is one of the leading indicators of job performance. Another study indicated how significantly EI is intertwined with job satisfaction and that those with high levels of EI also tended to have a high commitment to the organisation and less inclination to turnover.

Taking a positive view and looking to help leaders enhance their EI, such as developing one’s self-regard and regard for others, can clearly be beneficial to help leaders grow and develop.

In addition to leaders dedicating time to exploring their EI in a positive context and thinking about how they can enhance EI to set a great example for their team members, it can also be really useful for leaders to explore those times when the chips are down and they just aren’t able to muster that immediate positive response to their team. When these situations arise, if a leader is lacking emotional intelligence, they can often lead to counterproductive behaviours and defensiveness.

Uncovering defensive behaviours in leadership

We all face difficult and demanding situations at work from time to time, and when under pressure we may revert to defensiveness or rigid attitudes. These types of defensive behaviours are used to protect ourselves from more difficult feelings, such as when we are outside our comfort zone or feeling under threat.

For example, a leader with a tendency towards avoidant defensive behaviours may protect themselves from being excluded by others by being so overly self-sufficient that they end up alienating team members and failing to give them sufficient support.

Of course, we all demonstrate certain negative attributes from time to time when we are not managing the impression we are creating. There comes a point, however, when defensive behaviours are no longer helpful and they start to undermine performance, and as a leader can negatively impact the team.

Examples of defensive leadership behaviours

When a leader better understands their defensive characteristics and they build their self-awareness, they can then recognise these habits in the future and more quickly mitigate them. Identifying what might trigger their defensiveness from kicking in can be as simple as pausing and hopefully choosing a different, more useful approach.

That’s not to say they can do this all the time, and of course there will always be times when the leader’s mask slips, showing a more vulnerable and less emotionally intelligent side. However, enhanced awareness and understanding of these more negative aspects of their style can be very useful for a leaders’ development.

Psychometric tools such as the Emotional Intelligence Profile (EIP3) are invaluable in providing the insights into an individual’s EI and also the likelihood of them exhibiting defensive leadership habits such as being overly reactive or reliant.

My work as a coach and assessor means I often work with leaders whose mask has slipped at times which has been affecting their team members. To bring to life the behaviours and the impact of when this happens, there are some anonymised examples of this below.

Defensive behaviour example #1

Description: The idealistic leader who protects themselves from the harsh realities of work by pretending everything is positive.

Characteristics: Overly-optimistic, impractical, unrealistic, lacks focus, inaccurate, and unreliable

I conducted leadership coaching with a person who I will call Jean to support her ongoing development. In one session, we were exploring insights from the EIP3, along with some 360 feedback results. Known as a positive go-getter who inspires others, Jean had a real energy and zest about her as we spoke.

When exploring her leadership development areas, she took a similarly positive outlook and preferred to take a more ‘strength-based’ approach. She spoke with great enthusiasm and gusto about all the new projects and initiatives she was spearheading and how they were all going to be “fantastic.”

When I probed more deeply around examples of times when things hadn’t worked out, she was very quick to dismiss this and said “Oh no that’s ok. I have a great team and they sort it out when it doesn’t go well, and then I can crack on with the next new initiative!” before she swiftly moved on to describe more of her new exciting projects to me.

Feedback from Jean’s direct reports provided in the 360 report, however, indicated that they were frustrated with her impracticality and that she was often leaving them to resolve issues she had created when she moved on to a new project. She was blissfully unaware of the impact of her behaviour on her team.

This was an example of where her defensive behaviour was coming to the fore and her team was left to mop up the trail of devastation left in her wake. She moved rapidly from one exciting shiny project to the next without being realistic about the consequences, what was involved, or the impact it had on others. This rapid change of direction left people confused and overworked.

Exploring this further with Jean really helped to heighten her self-awareness and resulted in a realisation that her tendency to shield herself from pressures at work by being overly positive could have a detrimental impact on her team.

Defensive behaviour example #2

Description: The leader who protects themselves from being let down by being highly mistrusting of team members.

Characteristics: Cautious, mistrusting, sceptical, cynical, critical, and questioning

During an assessment interview, a coachee whom I will call John admitted that he had a tendency to “interrogate” his staff to discover the hidden meaning or intent of their messages. He explained how his natural tendency was to not take things at face value and that he would use his analysis skills to “unearth the truth.”

He realised he could be more prone to doing this when he felt the pressure from his boss to deliver at pace. He was not inclined to immediately believe the “surface level issues” that his team members presented to him and felt that he needed to find out “what was really going on.”

He then went on to say that after some reflection, at times when his team members came in to speak to him, perhaps they did genuinely just want to know if he wanted a cup of tea, rather than there being some hidden agenda. This exploration was a real light bulb moment for John as he realised that this must be quite exhausting for his team members to feel that they had to constantly justify themselves and that they were not immediately trusted by him.

Reversing defensive behaviours

These examples highlight how defensive leadership habits can detrimentally impact a team and how the leader may lack awareness of this impact. Therefore, exploration of one’s defensiveness and highlighting a leader’s self-awareness about the potential impact can be a very useful developmental tool. Exercises like these could very well be the difference between confusion and turnover within a team to achieving results and increased performance.

Nine essential elements for modern leadership

The requirements to successfully lead in today’s organisations differ significantly from the past, and leadership hiring and development processes can only be effective if the attitudes, skills, and behaviours measured align with demands of the modern, complex world.

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