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John Cooper

JCA Global LTD


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How defensive behaviour can cost your business


Have you ever been in a meeting where people’s behaviour creates an atmosphere that just isn’t productive?

Or chatted on the phone to a customer services adviser and the person on the line just doesn’t want to help you?

Creating the right climate between people within an organisation can increase business productivity by 22%; research we’ve conducted with clients over the last 20 years has shown this.

But what is the cost to an organisation when the right environment isn’t in place and defensive behaviours are rife amongst employees and leaders?

What are defensive behaviours?

We’ve all experienced defensive behaviours in work, whether we know it or not.

Labels from a psychology point of view include domineering, detached, guarded, avoidant, compliant, despondent.

In simpler terms, they are behaviours that stop us being as effective as we can be or stop us from helping others be effective. Yet in the reality of the workplace, how do these really show themselves day to day?

Imagine you are in a meeting and during the meeting you realise that you have not prepared enough - you might find yourself withdrawing from the discussion and contributing less.

As you begin to feel less sure of yourself, you protect yourself by speaking less. This is a defence and we use defences when we feel threatened.

Some defences look different. A common defence when we feel undermined may be to speak over people or seek to dominate the conversation.

Both examples are everyday behaviours that we experience in work and often are thought of as unchangeable but training in Emotional Intelligence (EI) can address and turn around these defensive behaviours.

How does defensive behaviour affect the bottom line?

The most easily quantified costs of defensive behaviours in business are metrics such as increased sick leave – not only from those displaying defensive behaviours such as burnout or stress but also those impacted by these behaviours including distress or anxiety.

The CIPD Absence Management Annual Survey Report 2016 [PDF] shows that stress tops the list of the most common causes of long-term absence, and sits in second position for the most common cause of short-term absence.

The report explains: “Workload, nonwork factors and management style are still reported as the top three causes of stress at work.”

The Centre of Economic and Business Research translates the very real cost of this to the UK economy as being £18bn in lost productivity – with it worryingly going up to £21bn in 2020 and £26bn in 2030.

An equally worrying short-term cost for organisations are people being in the workplace but not really being present, impacting their performance, productivity and quality of interaction with colleagues and customers.

This hits the HR department as a cost when they find themselves constantly recruiting due to high staff turnover and managing absences that keep an organisation in a “surviving” mindset rather than a “thriving” mindset.

The cost on business culture

Defensive behaviours also damage and drain the bottom line through less immediately-quantifiable aspects that are just as, if not more so, serious in their impact. 

Frequent and sustained defensive behaviours can corrode an organisation from the inside out. In the long-term they can become accepted as the “norm”, creating cultures that are highly risk-averse, blame orientated and overly reward individual success over organisational performance.

This climate often starts with defensive behaviours in the boardroom or at management level and if left un-checked, is one of the quickest ways to hinder growth and undermine business success.

Leaders and managers that are easily triggered into using defensive behaviours (or worse, depend on them) are quick to disengage those around them and erode one of the most important components for organisational success – psychological safety

Working in such an environment, employees are unable to focus their full energy on collective success but instead expend energy on un-productive behaviours such as playing it safe, internal impression management and office politics.

Ultimately - collaboration, innovation, and pro-active engagement that is needed to thrive during these disruptive and competitive times, is stifled.

Address defensive behaviour with Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence (EI) is how somebody manages themselves to be both personally and interpersonally effective. Therefore, EI directly relates to an individual’s effectiveness and performance at work.

Organisations that invest in Emotional Intelligence training recognise that EI is key to combatting defensive behaviours and harnessing the true potential of their workforce.

An Emotional Intelligence tool can identify the underlying attitudes that underpin an individual’s thinking and feeling. These are the attitudes that drive behaviour and performance.

Behavioural change developed in the training room can often be temporary and people soon return to old habits back at work. EI works at a deeper individual level to create sustainable change.

By training a manager to realise their own defences and the consequences of their behaviour, they can change from a manager who doesn’t listen to his team, micromanages and talks over employees - to someone that doesn’t feel the need to control and can instead be a supportive influence, trusting their team and providing guidance as needed.

EI can also help an employee who previously felt too undermined or shy to share their opinion, to communicate better and have the confidence to share their previously unspoken innovative ideas.

By giving employees EI training and tools, organisations can develop a more engaged and enthused workforce working in a collaborative and communicative environment; a thriving rather than surviving mindset, that in turn improves productivity across the business and so the bottom line.

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