08/11/2010

By Andrew Lester

Defensive behaviours are common in business. They result from any number of causes. The effect though is crippling. Defensive behaviours are ultimately consuming because they are not creative. They rely on trying to keep the status quo in a world that does not stand still.

Common causes of defensive behaviours are simple time pressure and an inability to communicate properly. Most SME (Small and Medium Enterprises) owners and directors will recognise that it is often far easier to do it yourself than spend the time briefing someone else to do it. We all know what we should do. We all know that if we don’t take the time now to explain it to others then we will always do it ourselves, but we also know that such action doesn’t change the vicious circle.

The big problem with defensive behaviours is that they limit discussion, creativity and adaptability. Many bosses will defend their view of the world rather than take input from others. After all they became “bosses” by knowing more and being more capable. The clue here is in the past tense. Defensive behaviours are common in business when the team does not really understand why it does what it does and how it adds customer value. As a result the “boss” has to continually justify why things are the way they are. This makes the boss defensive and “negative”. The behaviour of the boss becomes predictable as far as the team is concerned: always defending existing practices and rejecting new thought.

A key impact of defensive behaviour is therefore a major reduction in the team’s ability to innovate and adapt from within as quickly or as effectively as they otherwise could. The strength of the team is lost. As a result the business becomes stagnant and a culture of just “do what your told” takes hold.

Breaking out from defensive behaviours requires two key elements: better time management (time to think and consider) and a strong desire to continually improve current operations and grow new markets at the same time.

A real example: In a recent client company the owner continually defended the business as we tried to help it grow. The owner was justifiably proud of the achievements of the company so far but was very defensive of every option and consideration we put forward. To break out of this cycle, we got him to set aside specific time to view his own business not from where it is today, or how it got there, but to look at it today from where it will be in three year’s time. The effect on him and the business was dramatic. All of a sudden his defensive behaviour was put in a different context and he was able to recognise the current state as a point on a journey through the life of his company. His need to defend his company, its offers and its ways of working was substantially reduced. As a result he was also seen by the team as a better leader, one who was capable of communicating where the company was headed and why the current operations were transient and for how long.

Please feel free to comment by contacting me: andrewlester@carr-michael.com. Andrew Lester is Managing Partner of Carr-Michael Consulting, specialists in growth management and business performance improvement.