Frank called the other day to ask if I wanted to be a part of a small leadership think tank he was putting together. His organisation had been reviewing their leadership culture to look at what’s working well and what could be done better. Frank wanted to bring together a group of disparate people both from inside and outside the organisation to generate fresh insights and thinking.
Defensiveness is an aspect of his organisaitions culture that Frank’s leadership team have been working on for a couple of years now. While they have made progress, it continues to take up too much cultural space - what else can they do to build more trust and reduce defensiveness both horizontally and vertically?
At the Think Tank, Frank brought a copy of an email he had sent to his people thanking them for a great year and ending with the rallying cry ‘lets take it up a notch next year!’ While I thought it was a well-intentioned email it did leave me with a question: what does ‘take it up a notch’ mean? I wondered how the people would interpret this? Would it just seem like more management weasel words like ‘work smarter not harder’?
So I asked Frank – ‘what does ‘take it up notch mean?’ Frank looked surprised, he explained: 'it was just meant to encourage people to do even better next year…he didn’t go into the detail in the email because he didn’t want the email to be too long – most of the readers would understand what he meant'.
Straight away one of Franks colleagues, Dave (another manager), jumped in to reassure Frank: ‘Mate, I really liked your email, I thought it was really well written and I knew exactly what you meant’.
Frank then looked at me with a degree of relief in his eyes: ‘Dave understood the email, I think the email was fine: take it up a notch just means take it up a notch. Nothing wrong with saying that and as we get into the year the managers will work with their teams to work out how they are going to take it up a notch’.
Sensing that in Frank’s mind the conversation had ended; I couldn’t just let it go. I was interested that no-one was interested in the question itself; instead the focus was on Frank avoiding criticism by justifying himself, which was very ably supported by his colleague Dave.
So I asked Frank if he was being defensive? A timely question I thought as we had just been talking about the defensive culture of his organisation :)
Frank looked stunned! ‘No he wasn’t being defensive he was simply explaining why he wrote the email the way he did’.
Giving and receiving constructive feedback is a tricky business. I probably should have asked Frank if I could give him some feedback rather than just asking the question unannounced. It might have helped him be more open to the question. Having said that we all need to get better at receiving constructive feedback without becoming defensive. Don’t make excuses. Don’t justify. Just accept the feedback when it comes and in the spirit that is intended. You can work out what to do with it later.
When people give feedback they’re sharing their view of the world. It might give you a valuable insight; then again, it might not. But if you aren’t able to accept constructive feedback with an open mind you’ll never know.
Behaving in a way that shows that you feel people are criticizing you
Very anxious to challenge or avoid criticism.
"he was very defensive about that side of his life"
Synonyms:self-justifying, oversensitive, thin-skinned, easily offended, prickly, neurotic; uptight, twitchy