In my work as a management consultant, I often hear managers complain about employees who get defensive the moment they are told that something was done incorrectly or that it could stand to be improved. The trouble with defensiveness is that it makes people stop listening; hence there can be no dialogue. And we simply can’t solve problems without talking.
But starting a dialogue—or keeping its flow—in the presence of defensiveness can turn it into a difficult conversation. In Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, authors Douglas Stone, Bruce M. Patton and Sheila Heen suggest that each difficult conversation is actually made up of three separate conversations: 1) What happened? 2) What feelings are involved? And, 3) How does it affect my identity?
The authors also point out that the way we approach each of those conversations, i.e., how we answer the questions they raise, is heavily dependent on our past experiences and the implicit rules that guide our behavior.
So when the employee who gets defensive happens to have been raised with different cultural values or is a member of a minority group, managers should be aware of a different set of assumptions:
1. What happened? During this first exploratory conversation, there is a natural tendency to blame someone else for the error or mishap. Diverse employees, most of whom are relationship-oriented, may want to remain quiet rather than place blame on a team member or the boss. At most, they may say it wasn’t their fault. As their supervisor, you may want to keep in mind that most minorities do feel the burden of their ethnicity (i.e., they might fear that you will use stereotypes to find fault with them, or that you will generalize their mistake as a trait that affects their entire race).
- To avoid this, approach the situation by stating that rarely does anything go wrong because of only one individual. Thus, the conversation will be about the way in which all parties involved contributed to the mistake so it can be avoided in the future. Stone, Patton, and Heen call this “moving from blame to contribution.”
2. What feelings are involved? For diverse employees, having done something wrong may carry feelings of shame. So it would be very hard for them to publicly admit their contribution to the problem. They need to save face. As well, their desire to honor someone else’s feelings—often at the expense of their own—for the sake of the relationship could actually backfire.
- As a supervisor, your best bet is to find out if your employees are feeling that way. At the same time, it is important to reassure them that you are seeking understanding and not punishment. If they can trust your intentions, they are more likely to work with you to prevent the problem in the future.
3. Effect on the Employee’s Identity. Stone, Patton, and Heen, who were a part of the Harvard Negotiation Project, point out that this particular conversation can be the most difficult of the three. In part, this is so because it raises doubts about who we are and the capabilities we believe we have. If employees did something wrong, something that they believe they should have known how to do but didn’t, it inevitably threatens their perception of self-competence. The internal voice that tells employees “you should know how to do this” is the same voice that prevents them from asking for help. Once again, saving face becomes very important.
- Develop a trusting relationship with these employees so that they understand you prefer questions to the potential negative consequences of working without a clear direction. Make sure they understand that you’ll make no judgment about their competence just because they asked a few questions.