Over the years I have had the opportunity to work with many people. I have seen so many who truly live the Weology philosophy - put WE before Me and everybody wins, including ... ME. I have also seen some of these people be perceived to be ... "defensive." I have also met a handful of people who primarily care about themselves and are truly defending their turf, their territory, their power. I'm sure you've met these people too.
It became important for me to understand this idea of "defensiveness" and how others perceive us when the "defensiveness" spot light was turned toward me. I have come to understand how this feels but also why someone can be perceived in this manner. I hope to share a few insights here about this dangerous label and what you can do to increase the likelihood that it doesn't get stamped on your back while still being effective when you may not always agree.
Firstly, don't throw this label around lightly. I have certainly accused people I have worked with over the years of being defensive. Taken for its true meaning, the label suggests that someone is defending what is theirs and putting one's own interests ahead of the team's. To say that about someone is akin to calling them a traitor and questioning whether they can ever be trusted again. This sounds dramatic but implying that a person would choose protecting themselves over doing what is best for their company or team is saying a lot and uses vocabulary that bring up issues of trust.
So, don't do that unless you know for sure. It can cause great harm to others.
However, you may often face a circumstance where you may have a differing opinion and there is risk that your opinion my be perceived to benefit you. This is a common situation but one that requires a thoughtful plan to work through. Here are 4 things to think about before you open your mouth:
Make sure you understand the issue and solutions with an objective mindset. Have you taken the time to understand before having a view? Realize that your opinion may be risky to share and know that it is time to be strategic about how and when you share your thought. Breath and explore safely in your own head.
Question to Gain Understanding, only.
Often when we ask questions to understand we are really already trying to influence people to our way of thinking. Most people can see this coming and realize what you are doing. This can be a subconscious thing so you need to be aware of it and hold it back. Ensure your questions are truly designed to better understand the issue not to begin to persuade your teammates. For example, "Randy, maybe I need some more caffein but I'm having trouble understanding that option. Can you explain it again?" "That was very helpful, thank you. Randy, to help me understand better, I have one more question I'd love your help with. The connection between A and B seems very important, can you help me understand the connection there?"
Hopefully, with this line of questioning either you will better understand or the team will see that more work needs to be done or other solutions need to be explored. Be careful about "Why" questions. "Why do you feel that way?" "Why do you see the connection between A and B?" Seek understanding, and be clear that that is what you are doing. Suspend your opinion ... for now.
Your Face and Body Speak a Thousand Words.
You may be breathing, you may be exploring your understanding of the issue but your face and body may be telling a very different story. There is a tremendous body of research that explains the impact of body language on our communication. Here is one excellent article that begins to explain the importance of body language. I often sit in board rooms and carefully watch people's body language and facial expressions. I can often tell their level of discomfort with a topic, their level of engagement, whether they have done the pre-read or if they have an opinion that they are not sharing. Be thoughtful about this too. Here is a website that can help you be more aware of the words your body is speaking when your mouth is not.
It's Time to Share Your View.
The worst thing a true team player can do is to burry their opinion and not share it. If you've done the steps above and you still don't agree you need to do something about it, always. Depending on the players and the situation you need to decide whether your opinion should be shared openly with the group or maybe it is better to discuss it with the team lead or your boss in private. Either way, how you share is important.
Be clear about your intention, use data and be open to being wrong. Briefly ensure that people understand that you have a view that may be controversial and you only bring it up to ensure that the team doesn't miss something important. You don't need to own the opinion. Once you share it it should belong to the team. Share the opinion you've been thinking about and the logic (with data) about how you got there. Lastly, humbly ask the team if they'd be willing to share some thoughts to either validate or dispel the value of your opinion.
I have learned these tactics as I have struggled through some tough situations throughout the years. I have also advised many people about how to influence others without being misinterpreted. These tips certainly go a long way to helping your team make better decisions and you avoiding being labeled as defensive.
I hope this helps you as you deal with this type of situation for yourself or if you are coaching others to be more effective and influential.