Come on, Give Me Your Best Defense

Did last month’s post on performance appraisals relieve all your uneasiness about the performance appraisal process? Probably not.

Focusing on employees’ future growth instead of past performance is a proven approach, but I (purposely) left out a key aspect of appraisals that deserves a post all its own: Defensiveness.  The defensiveness that employees sometimes display when you present them with areas for improvement. While often viewed as the beginning of a tense discussion, instead I see it as a tool for enhancing awareness, understanding, and improvement.

What defensiveness means

Defensiveness is employees’ natural reaction to having their thoughts or actions challenged. And that’s not bad; on the contrary, it reveals three important things about them:

The first two are exactly what you want from them. This alone is cause for celebration – not scorn. The third is something that (as their manager or supervisor) you can help them fix. Dealing with defensiveness effectively depends more on your response than theirs.

How to deal with defensiveness

LeadershipFirst, recognize that receiving corrective feedback is uncomfortable. No matter how diplomatically you phrase issues, employees naturally feel that their best efforts are being challenged – that they, personally, are being challenged. Expect to see some level of discomfort – and a desire to push back.

Second, listen to the rationale behind their actions. Through their defensive response, they are sharing what led them to the approach they took. They want you to hear about their effort and intentions, and to understand their thought-process. This reaction comes from the need to clear their own reputation and is an essential part of the feedback process. Take the time to understand their approach, even though it didn’t produce desired results.

Third, confirm that you recognize that their intentions were good, and that you appreciate their desire to achieve optimal results. Once this level of understanding is accomplished, the defensiveness has been quelled, and you can begin to focus them toward the future, and to the changes they need to make.

Finally, lay out the steps they need to take to improve. Remember, appraisals work best when they focus on the future.