Dealing with the Dysfunctionally Defensive

Home » Dealing with the Dysfunctionally Defensive

Whenever we teach our Front Line Leadership program for supervisors and managers, inevitably we get approached by a frustrated participant who has an employee with a seemingly bizarre behavior that seems to defy logic.

The key indicator that there is a dysfunctional behavior is a persistent or out of the ordinary reaction that doesn’t fit the situation or circumstance.


  • Insubordinate behavior, either refusing to complete assigned work or being disrespectful to the supervisor or manager.
  • Unable to work well with others or being overly critical and negative towards coworkers.
  • Being overly emotional – either angry or sad.
  • Unexplained persistent absenteeism and punctuality issues.
  • Demonstrating poor customer service.
  • Being nice and pleasant in some situations and brutally negative in others.
  • Uneven work performance.

Fortunately the vast majority of employees respond to typical motivation and leadership approaches. But what should you do when faced with one of these atypical situations?

It helps to understand what might be causing the dysfunction. It may be rooted in a personal problem. For example an employee experiencing a bad relationship with their spouse that has them feeling trapped might decide to act out at work, being overly critical or negative and over sensitive to coworkers, customers or their boss.

Or an employee might be dealing with lingering self-esteem issues because of abuse, either current or from their past. This lack of self-confidence might manifest into finger-pointing, lack of accountability or a reluctance to take on challenging tasks.

Of course there will be those who cope quite well with their circumstances and continue to behave and perform to expectations.

Dysfunction and Defensiveness

The majority of dysfunctional behavior in our experience is rooted in defensiveness. That is, a desire to protect oneself from situations perceived as threatening. Defensiveness will predominantly be demonstrated passively through avoiding perceived threats, essentially laying low. Less common, but more extreme will be those individuals who are aggressively defensive, attacking or criticizing others to deflect undue scrutiny on themselves. And extremely defensive employees will exhibit passive-defensive behaviors, fluctuating between being easy going and brutally aggressive.

So what is a supervisor or manager to do?

  • First, communicate your concern and be specific about the behavior you are observing. Talk specifically about the reactions you observe or how the person is interacting with others. Most people lack self-awareness of how they are impacting others.
  • Describe the consequences in terms of deteriorating teamwork, lack of productivity or impact on the customer.
  • Ask the employee for their perspective on the situation. Ask them what might be causing or contributing to the situation. If the employee either states or hints that they are facing personal challenges at home, then the leader’s job is to direct the employee to available resources. HR can be a resource here. Avoid counselling directly because it can be unhelpful and put the supervisor or manager in a difficult situation.
  • Describe the expected behavior and ask how the employee will change to meet expectations. Ask if there is anything that you can do as the supervisor to help (avoid committing to things you cannot deliver). If the employee blames others for the problem and avoids taking responsibility, continue the conversation so that they employee takes ownership. This might involve making a direct statement that the employee is not taking responsibility.
  • Set up a timeframe to review a situation and if improvement is observed, provide positive reinforcement. If the unacceptable behavior continues, then escalate the consequences.

The supervisor or manager’s job is to clarify expectations and apply positive and corrective consequences. The employee remains responsible for his or her behaviour.

It is crucial to document conversations in a professional manner and it is advised to consult with HR in advance when dealing with atypical behaviour.

The goal in the process is to address the specific performance problem and then help the employee become more constructive (less defensive). That means providing positive reinforcement as the behavior improves. It is typical that you will observe some progress and then notice a tendency to slip back when under pressure. In the short term these employees will be higher maintenance and require more of the supervisor’s time.

While it is difficult to deal with an employee who demonstrates a dramatic change in his or her behavior from a sudden personal problem, it is possible to screen out problem employees during the hiring process. You cannot ask directly about personal situations but you can observe frequent job changes, repeated poor judgement or bad luck. Be on the lookout for answers to interview questions that raise red flags in terms of dealing with coworkers, stress, etc.

Also, the probationary period can be an excellent time to watch for behaviors of concern.

Inevitably problem employees sap the productivity or coworkers and consume a lot of the time and attention of the supervisor and HR. Knowing how to handle these situations can make the supervisor more confident and reduce stress.