The Defensive Executive

In everyday parlance we use the term “defensive” to characterize attitudes and interpersonal behavior that seems closed, guarded, rejecting, and even overtly hostile. Equally popular in our everyday lexicon of organizational behavior is “passive-aggressive.” It expresses an agreeableness, which turns out to be insincere, even manipulative, as it later manifests in behavior that undermines agreement or support.

For our purposes, we can treat both as defensiveness. We define defensiveness, in this sense, as a way of responding to felt or perceived threat. In one sense, then, it’s function is self-protective. But beyond providing self-protection in the face of imminent threat, it may also be a way of responding when our future goals or interests are threatened.

There’s a big difference. Self-protective defensiveness, is less conscious or unconscious, and it’s more benign in intent. Ambition-driven defensiveness, is consciously manipulative and harmful to others as individuals and groups. To be clear, beneath the manipulative aims and strategic contrivance of the latter form of defensiveness usually lies unconscious insecurities. More on that later.

Two Very Different Impacts

One difference between self-protective and ambition-driven defenses is that the first is more common and its potential for adverse effects are less severe. Self-protective defenses are also far more easily assessed, diagnosed, and resolved than the second. Let me illustrate the difference. In doing so I should caution the reader that these are limited examples of the myriad forms of such defenses.

Self-Protective Defenses

John and Jenny interact very frequently in recent days because they are jointly leading a collaboration between their respective teams in account management (AM) and project management (PM). Their goal from upper management is to “reinvent” the way they deliver value to the client. Two self-protective defenses emerged that are slowing their progress: intellectualization (John), and avoidance (Jenny). 

Coordination issues emerged that caused frustration, and the two teams were struggling to resolve it. John, representing his team’s experience and views in AM, says “We know the client, and the methods we’ve recommended make the most sense to them. It’s simple logic, this is the best way to speed up delivery.” His message is conveyed declaratively with calm confidence.

Jenny, having heard this message, feels that John is leaving little room for discussion and showing little interest in understanding the frustrations that her people are feeling. She pauses and responds. “Let me discuss your approach with my team again to see if I can identify what specifically their concerns are. I’ll get back to you.” She conveys her message with composed conciliation. She avoids conflict.

Both John and Jane are hi-potential candidates for more senior leadership roles. They each have a strong track record of performance and are well-liked by their teams. But John needs to become more attuned to the social-emotional dynamics of work and more patient and curious about the views and experience of others in another business function. And Jenny has work to do too.

She must learn to express her feelings to John that he seems not to be very curious about what PM is seeing, thinking, and concerned about. She must trust her “instincts” and give John the opportunity to stop, reflect, and then reengage differently. It’s one thing to conceptually grasp these changes; it’s another to realize them in behavior. But both hi-potential candidates can do it with coaching. 

Ambition-Driven Defensiveness

Usually the development issues described above are truly “opportunities,” normal growth and maturity. But success depends also on the support they receive from cultural norms and the encouragement of their supervisors, the VP-level executives to whom John and Jenny report. Both VPs are members of the business unit President’s team. They’ve agreed to support this initiative.

But, the VP to whom John reports has ambitions to take over PM. He’s made his case in private to the President. He argued that he can build a more seamless value-delivery system and boost revenues if he has control of both functions. His ambition has led him to encourage John to stand his ground on basic methods and practices – “we know better, soon the initiative will be complete.”

John feels divided. He’s naturally more of a team player. His defenses are not ambition-driven. He’s eager to learn, about himself and his self-limiting tendencies (intellectualizing), and about the business. He admires Jenny and the President. He’s been loyal to his boss, but he’s been put in a very difficult position by being reinforced to act in ways that do not promote true collaboration.

It’s not the first time John’s boss has used passive-aggressive behavior and manipulation of direct reports to realize his ambitions. But John has come to see even more clearly, since getting some coaching, that what his boss in advocating runs against the norms of the organization and the will of their President. And because the initiative has been more formalized and sponsored, the behavior issues have become more visible.

Taking Corrective Action

In most cases, if executives have used ambition-driven defenses with success, adaptive change is less likely. It’s usually necessary for the President to address these kinds of issues. In some cases, where the unhealthy motivations of an executive are not so deeply rooted, and where they’re able to see how it’s in their interest to behave differently, there may be realistic hope for change.

But I’ve seen enough organizations plagued by this kind of dysfunction to appreciate the consequences of inaction. Talented people leave. The organization’s creative-productive potentials are not fully realized. It almost always shows up in disappointing engagement scores.

So, I recommend that you constructively reckon with the normal, natural kinds of defensiveness that impede collaboration. You should be doing this in the natural process of development.

As for the more chronic and harmful kind of defensiveness, especially at executive levels, I would advise that you not be too patient. These problems are not like good wine, they don’t get better with age!