8 June 2010,


IN nature we see animals and insects using their defence mechanisms when threatened. People too, can pull out defence mechanisms when feeling threatened or attacked. Steve Bagi is an organisational psychologist from Actuate Consulting. He says we shouldn’t get so defensive. Instead, leaders are advised to strip out the emotion and adopt a pragmatic approach.

For those in leadership, criticism and conflict can be seen as an attack on their leadership ability, performance or the health of the organisation. Some leaders handle criticism very badly and their defence mechanisms go into action very quickly.
When facing criticism and conflict we always have the choice whether we use our defence mechanisms or not. We can respond or react. Some things to think about:

Who’s bristling your prickles?

Are they being reasonable? Is this a person who is usually calm and collected or are they someone who is always looking for a fight? Is it someone who usually has your best interests at heart? Are they just having a bad day and you just happened to be standing there?

Try not to buy in with your emotions

When we allow our emotions to fully kick in, then we may begin to lose the ability to really work the conflict out as in the heat of the moment voices are raised, words are said and relevant hand gestures given. Try to keep an objective view and respond rather than react. Don’t retaliate; just listen and show that you are interested in resolving the problem.

Don’t fight back

When threatened or hurt, our natural tendency is to fire back. What this does is escalate the conflict. One lesson that I have almost learned in conflict with our teenage children is that sometimes I just need to keep my big mouth shut and not have to have the last word.

Don’t build the wall and fill the moat

As a defence mechanism we can start to shut the other person out. We dig in and hold the fort. The problem with building a fort is that the other person will need even bigger guns to get through or just give up, leaving the issues unresolved.

Focus on the issue

So often we get defensive and take things personally when we should, instead, be focused on the issue at hand.
We should be wrestling with the issue and not each other. Leaders need to look at the issue and not see the comments as a personal attack on their leadership.

De-escalate the conflict

If the other person is not backing down with their offensive then you can calmly tell them what you are thinking about the situation and then withdraw.
This is not giving in; neither is it giving them the victory as it robs them of the thrill of the fight. Decide to disengage and not give them power.
When next in a conflict situation just think. Don’t react, respond. This might not resolve the conflict but there is a good chance that you will feel better about it and not have too much to apologise for later.






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