How to fight ‘defensive thinking’

Enron, the Catholic Church and the CIA all have committed bad mistakes and cover-ups that sprang from defensive routines. People use these routines to shield themselves or their organizations from perceived threats. They don’t just spin the truth; they try to cover up their cover-ups.

If others are making claims designed to keep you from testing their validity, you’ll know that defensive thinking is going on. Tipoffs include comments like “Trust me, I know how things work around here” or “Don’t worry, we’ve got it covered.”

Here’s an example of how to counter defensive talk:

You: Joe, some employees are upset about a couple of offensive jokes you’ve made.

Joe: Aw, don’t worry—I’m always making jokes; they’re always appropriate. They know I’m just kidding. If they were really upset, they’d tell me. Wait … who’s upset?

You: The reason they came to me is they don’t feel comfortable discussing this with you.

Joe: Well, that’s not fair. They should talk to me, not go around me or over me.

You: I’m afraid you don’t realize how bad these jokes are making people feel.

Joe: Really? So now we’re all politically correct? I can’t believe this.

You: Here’s why they’re not appropriate. The first one makes fun of people not for anything stupid or wrong they did but because of who they are, something they can’t change. The second one can be considered sacrilegious.

Joe: What? Am I working with children?

You: Even if none of our people are the butt of these jokes, they feel protective of others. And it doesn’t reflect well on our team.

Joe: It’s all in fun! Hey, you know I’m a good guy.

You: Yes, I do. Joe, three things I need you to do: One, I want you to go home right now and think about this. I’m not mad at you, and I don’t want you to be mad at anybody here. Two, after you come back to work tomorrow, I don’t want you to confront your staff or any one person on your team. Or make any sideways comments about this after today. And three, I don’t want you to make any more jokes like this around here. As far as I’m concerned, if you do these three things, we’re good. Will you do that?

Joe: OK. Sheesh. OK.

— Adapted from Harvard Management Update.