Mastering Leadership: How to Defend Without Getting Defensive
Staying Calm When Challenged: My Tips and Tricks
Leaders are not perfect, and a lot of things go into the making of a leader. I am writing a series of these articles on different traits that leaders need to learn. While these traits come naturally to some, it needs to be worked on by others (like me!). I want my readers to understand that climbing career ladders is accessible to all; it just requires diligent work.
I tend to get defensive. However, as a leader, it's crucial to control my emotions. I must defend my team and the system, but I need to do it effectively. I pause to take a breath, smile, and gather my thoughts. This practice helps me maintain composure and effectively communicate my point.
Being overly defensive kills productive discussions. It also demonstrates lack of maturity. Of course, these days not everything gets to me. Though as a new grad, anything could trigger a response.
How I learned I was overly defensive?
A year or two after college, I recall a review discussion. I received a good rating, but it also had some "bad" feedback. In retrospect, it was the best feedback I ever received.
I was told that I wouldn't let people speak in 1:1 discussions and that I wouldn't listen. This feedback came from a senior engineer, so it carried weight. It was shocking and felt devastating. Fortunately, I had a good manager who helped me delve into the issue. Together, we understood what was going on.
I would become defensive and get excited.
I would start justifying and ramble on.
Other people felt that they couldn't get their point across.
This feedback was actionable. All I had to do was refrain from responding at the first word, the first "no," or the first challenge. I had to let them finish before I responded.
Well, it was hard, but given the feedback, I never forgot about it. I started doing the following diligently.
I would pause.
I would acknowledge their points and nod while they spoke.
I would let them finish and repeat back their point.
I would avoid negative words like “NO” as my first response.
I would counter with why I did not agree, or if I agreed, I would say so.
We would have a productive brainstorming discussion.
Fast forward 6 months. I received feedback that I had shown solid improvement on this front. That felt like a win.
Don’t be submissive - Defend!
There's another side to this. Trying hard not to be defensive can make you appear submissive, giving the impression of agreement when you don't actually agree.
Imagine this scenario(similar to one I've experienced) where your team ships a new feature that breaks a customer, causing a major incident. During the incident review, someone asks you bluntly, "Don't you have any tests that catch issues before deploying new code? This caused us $$$ in revenue impact."
It is easy to get triggered and justify. Imagine if this happened because it was a one off customer usage that you don’t officially support.
Reacting by blaming the customer for still using unsupported API usage won't be helpful. It will only create a divide between you. My approach in situations like this has been to say:
“Our tests didn't detect this issue because we phased out this usage a while ago.”
“It appears we didn't collaborate with you to migrate to the supported API.”
“We have a solid test coverage for the supported cases. Once you make the switch, these incidents won't happen again.”
“Let’s work together on that”
Tips that work for me
As a leader, you will face many unexpected situations where you need to be assertive. For some, you won't have the luxury of information and composure. You should:
Focus on the root of the problem at hand.
Empathize with your peers. Make them feel heard. Explain the constraints of your team and system succinctly and assertively. They are also defending their system, so work together to find a solution that works for both of you.
Keep in mind that not everyone can express their questions and concerns effectively. So don't let "mean" words trigger you. Remember - pause, breathe, and smile.
The scale of the problem or who you disagree with does not matter. Great leaders can navigate through the most uncomfortable situations and come to a solution without anyone feeling upset.
So defend assertively, but don't get defensive.
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