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Coaching Excellence: Why Employees Get Defensive and Difficult



The following article is an excerpt taken from “The Ten Laws for Coaching Excellence”

Why Employees (Everybody) get Defensive and Difficult

In part one of this five part series on coaching we detailed how to have a good conversation in the first of three difficult situations called “How to have a Facilitative and Motivating Conversation with an Employee”.

In part two we looked at how to have have a good conversation with an employee in a second difficult situation, Delegating a Simple but Boring Task.

Today we will explore why employees get defensive or difficult and what we can do about it.


Why Employees (Everybody) get Defensive and Difficult


Before we detail how to motivate a difficult or unmotivated employee, it is important for a coach, leader or manager to know what makes them act as they do and then of course what to do about it.

When something goes wrong, when we feel threatened or uncomfortable, people’s (the human brain’s) default position is to defend themselves.

There are three oddities in the human brain that make us defensive and seem to preclude us from learning from our failures and becoming more successful.

These three oddities, that make being a manager so difficult, are

 1. We Deny

2. We Delay

3. We Delude

Let’s first look at the first step.

The Three Things We Do To Avoid Reality

1. We Deny


First of all, a comment.

We all fail.

In fact, in evolutionary biology (variation and selection) and more recently in major schools of economics, there is a prevailing notion that planning is greatly overrated. In other words, the way to become successful is to fail, serially.

People want to be right and they want the glory for being right.

We find it very difficult to separate our error from our sense of self worth.

To the very same extent, people find it incredibly difficult to admit they were wrong or made a mistake and try to put it right. Human beings seem to resist challenging or changing the status quo of our own making.

Why is denial such a natural tendency? Psychologists call this proclivity cognitive dissonance. The brain is not constituted to hold two apparently opposing thoughts at one time.

For instance, “I am good (smart) at what I do but I made a mistake.” Because our self worth and survival, not to mention our dignity are usually wrapped in the position we take on a given issue.

In other words, expect people to not want to admit when they are wrong (unless the good relationship you have with them mitigates the situation) or like being corrected and to make excuses when they are clearly in the wrong.

2. We Delay


The second trap our minds set for us is to compound our mistakes by trying to compensate for them; in other words, keep chasing our losses in an attempt to make them go away.

Witness the refusal or tendency to:

1. Fire the laggard,

2. Break up with your girlfriend/boyfriend,

3. Throw good money after bad,

4. Stay with a losing (financial) strategy etc.

This is very difficult to do but we need to learn to make peace with our losses and get on our way.

This Inclination is not Psychological; it is Biological.

Dr. Daniel Kahneman (UCLA) won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2002 for discovering and determining that the human brain hates to lose twice as much as it likes to win.

The “I lose” feeling (an emotion in the amygdale, not a cognitive thought) is one the most intensely powerful of all human emotions.

It is the primary way that people judge or evaluate things in their life and they will do anything to avoid (delay) addressing it. For no apparent or logical reason, we overreact to a perceived loss. The “I lose” feeling of loss tends to tune out all other considerations.

And the more there is at stake, meaningful a potential loss is, the more loss averse we be­come and the eas­ier it is to get swept into an irrational (poor) decision.


3. We Delude

So denial is the process of refusing to acknowledge a mistake.

And delay or loss chasing is the process of causing more damage while trying to hastily erase the mistake.

We delude is a subtler process of using rose coloured glasses to convince ourselves that the mistake doesn’t matter.

Or we simply remember or interpret our past as being better than it really was; we construe our failure as a success.

Everything worked out for the best.

So, if this is what people do (under stress), how to best manage them.

Before we address that issue, let’s look at a big mistake that managers often make.

So a Good Strategy is Whenever Possible to Commit your “Best Failures” in two Places


1.  In Private

This is where being an Introvert (private and contemplative in nature) is a big advantage.

2.  In front of a limited but Safe Audience

This is where being a member of TEC (the Executive Committee is an international support group for CEOs with whom I do a lot of work) is a big advantage.

In other words, being willing to fail is an essential first step to being successful (not perfect) in so many areas of our life.

Because real world problems are more complex than we would like to think they are, there are three rules to success:

1. Try new things, expecting that some will fail (variation)

2. Try them in small steps and in a context where failure is survivable

3. Get feedback and know how to react to failure that is to learn from your mistakes (selection).

Now that we have a better idea as to why employees get defensive or difficult and what we can do about it, in part four, we will analyze a big mistake that many managers make, that is using what is commonly called the “Praise Sandwich”.

For more on this topic, we recommend the following


The Ten Laws for Coaching Excellence

How to Empower Employees and
Coach Superior Performance

Click Here For Video and Full Description


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