Through this article I will begin to explore some thoughts around personal defence strategies and the impact they have on an organisation’s ability to train, develop and effectively bring about changed behaviours from its people.

The issue is an important one for managers and leaders, as invariably the line responsibility for developing individuals will rest with the manager.

A common development requirement for individuals and teams is a behaviour change of some kind.  Often underestimated is the time that needs to be taken in supporting an individual through the process of recognizing the existence of an old behaviour, raising awareness of the impact of the old behaviour on self/others the organization, acknowledging the need for change, and then moving into unknown territory as old behaviours are put to one side and new behaviours designed, developed and finally adopted.

What a process!  And a common reaction to this kind of process will be to feel the need to defend oneself from the potential ‘threat’ of change.

All the while personal defence strategies are in place in response to perceived threat, then implementation of any significant behaviour change is going to be very difficult. Why? Well for one thing, think where energy and focus is being directed in an individual who is working hard to defend themselves.  You can be sure that the energy and focus in not being directed towards working on the behaviour change at all, instead you’re likely to see someone working on convincing themselves and others that the old way is still the best option.

Understanding a little about personal defence strategies can speed up the process of development.  Its like spending time on building solid foundations for a house;  its worth it in the end.  For some, even recognizing the existence of the defensive behaviour is a big step towards implementing development that is really going to make a difference.  And, dare I say it, the starting point for recognizing defensive behaviours in others, is spotting one’s own!!

So what does that mean for the manager?

It could mean that if you recognize the need for changing behaviour from you team of people, then recognize too the involvement you’ll need to have as well.  As they undergo a process of development which might be threatening, scary, unsettling and challenging, then isolating yourself from the process and thus limiting your exposure to their defence strategies, will limit their ability to ‘change’ when they return to work alongside you!

Its likely to mean that you need to understand and recognize defence strategies in yourself and others.  The best case study you have is yourself, so spot the times when you get ‘angry with someone else for making you feel….’ – your reaction here could be a defence strategy you use to avoid dealing with your own behaviour at the point of ‘threat’. At a subconscious level you may have selected anger as the reaction you wish to employ, so what other alternatives are there, and why did anger end up being the one you settled with?  Tough questions.

Ask yourself what defence strategies you employ to protect yourself at work?  Some examples of strategies employed consciously and subconsciously could be:

  • Taking offence (you can choose not to!)
  • Using humour to shrug off uncomfortable situations – (by all means use humour, but be conscious and aware of your decision to replace what you’re currently experiencing with humour, and look at what you’re choosing to avoid)
  • Using emotion to warn others off (eg hurt, tears, anger, vulnerability)
  • Attacking behaviour (being louder, bigger, sarcastic, more vocal, more authoritative……..and consequently harder for others to challenge)
  • Denying that an issue is affecting you adversely (if you don’t admit to it then you don’t have to feel uncomfortable about it)
  • Silence (if you don’t speak you are ‘safer’)
  • Selective hearing (…’I thought you meant…’)

If you can begin to spot your strategies for protecting yourself in the workplace, then you’re a step closer to helping others spot theirs!  Once spotted, there’s now the opportunity to explore what’s happening at the point a defence kicks in.  As a manager you can help an individual ask themselves about the perceived threat;  is it as big, as threatening, as scary and as significant as they perceive it to be?  What lies at the root of their ‘fear’?  What is the reality facing them if the defence is lowered? What kind of support do they require in order to begin to change?

And then the real work starts as, for the first time, instead of sealing themselves behind their protective shields, your people find themselves prepared to experiment with moving through the ‘discomfort’ whilst experimenting with whatever is ‘new’.