READ: How Healthy is your Self Esteem?

Why do we often notice defensiveness in others but not in ourselves? I hear a lot of managers complain about people not taking responsibility for issues or things that have gone wrong. But very few of them reflect on what it was that they failed to do, that let the other person fail. On the other hand, there are also many people at all levels of management who are overly self-critical. They have a high level of negative inner dialogue that undermines their power and ability to influence others.


Admitting mistakes

Several years ago I was working with a Managing Director and his Sales Manager who he wanted to promote to Operations Manager; let’s call him Peter. The MD had very high hopes for Peter because he saw great potential in him, but there was a problem: Peter was very defensive. In one specific instance he refused to accept that the lack of sales in the previous month was anything to do with him. It was everyone else’s fault; people were lazy, not following procedures and not asking the right questions on sales calls. The MD desperately wanted to help him and provide support but he got terribly frustrated by the fact that Peter was refusing to accept that it was his lack of managing, coaching and motivating his team that was causing the downturn in sales. Peter felt that he was doing fine, it was not him that needed to improve – it was the team.

As I observed them at loggerheads I could see the increasing frustration in the MD that Peter was refusing to admit that he got it wrong; that he had taken his eye off the ball with regard to managing his team. He was not willing to accept that he was at fault in any way. They had reached an impasse and both were getting increasingly agitated. In the end I just suggested to Peter that he take a deep breath and declare that he screwed up. He was surprised by this suggestion and I could see him considering a variety of implications. While I have no idea what he was actually thinking, he reluctantly admitted that it was possible that he could have done more. The immediate change in the MD was remarkable. His frustration disappeared, his energy calmed right down as he went straight into coaching and supportive mode. Peter was rather surprised because he was expecting to be given a rollicking, not to receive acknowledgement that it was tough being a manager and be given the offer of support.

No need to improve?

Defensiveness is a perfectly natural survival mechanism based on our below-conscious perceptions of a significant threat. It is remarkable to think that we are now running around in a very volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world, with a brain that was designed to help us survive some very simple and fundamental threats: fight or flight. When we are being defensive we are allowing our basic instincts to run our emotions and react without thinking – often irrationally – because we are filled with fear of change. It is as if our survival depended on things staying the same – “I’m OK as I am; I don’t need to improve” – even if things are very uncomfortable!

Our delicately balanced sense of safety can easily feel threatened. Can you identify when you are being defensive? Do you sometimes feel unreasonably attacked? Once this happens we are pumped full of a cocktail of neurochemicals that makes us pessimistic and causes us to focus on tiny details, often blowing them out of proportion. We also lose the ability to see the bigger picture and make creative connections in our brain. In fact, a number of studies by neuroscientists have discovered that the electrical activity in the brain causes a number of accidental connections. We then believe these connections to be true and seek evidence to prove them even when there is no logic to it. That is often when the excuses start flowing.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. When we adopt a ‘Growth Mindset’ it is far easier to notice what stage we are at in our development as a manager (or, leader, spouse, parent, lover, etc.). We can remain open and calm, listen to feedback and adjust our behaviour because we want to improve, grow and become even better than we were yesterday. However, this requires a high level of Self-Esteem.

Self Esteem is a paradox

It is interesting to recognise that high Self Esteem is a paradox. On one hand we need self-acceptance and on the other we need the desire for self-improvement. Having one stronger than the other can create an imbalance that leads to being overly defensive or self-critical.

The Paradox Graph for the context of ‘Self’ is illustrated to the right.

When we have a healthy self-esteem we value ourselves without becoming arrogant. We strive to improve a little every day without beating ourselves up if we get something wrong. We seek to learn the lessons in our mistakes because we know that self-improvement is the key to success; a happy and fulfilling life with rewarding relationships. By accepting that we are not perfect and that we have our foibles, but also acknowledging our strengths, we can avoid being self-critical. This balanced approach helps us deeply understand ourselves and increases our ability to understand and value others.

If our self-acceptance is high and our desire for self-improvement is low, we are out of balance and can become defensive. If our self-acceptance is low and our desire for self-improvement is high, we are also out of balance and can become self-critical. When both are low we tend to be internally contradicted – doubting ourselves and unsure of what to develop. This can be a rather difficult place where we lack the required feedback and guidance required to grow.

When we have an imbalance, we also get a ‘flip’ when we are over-stressed. If we have a tendency to be self-critical we can flip into defensiveness when under pressure, because we feel it is unfair that others attack us when we already know we are not doing well enough. If we have a tendency to be defensive we can flip into being very self-critical when under pressure, because our resilience is weaker. It is interesting to note that the aggressive imbalance of defensiveness is more noticeable and can cause immense disharmony in a team, whereas the passive imbalance of self-criticism can be invisible and very destructive to personal well-being. Both of these imbalances can seriously undermine performance and they need to be carefully monitored and addressed by management.


Increasing balance

What I like about this model is that it helps us to understand what is missing if we (or the people we work with) are out of balance. It’s not about taking anything away. It’s about understanding what we need to do more of in order to achieve ‘Balanced Versatility’ in both of these paradoxical traits.

In order to cultivate a growth mindset and develop Healthy Self-Esteem it is useful to contemplate the truth in proverbs like:

“Although I have many good qualities, my life and relationships need continuous improvement.”

“True character is developed through self-enquiry which ultimately leads to discovering the full impact of one’s weaknesses and faults as well as the revelation of one’s grandeur.”

“A person of self-dignity listens carefully to his/her critics and adjusts him/herself to allow his/her splendour to shine forth even more brightly.”

It is also useful to develop resilience and learn how to handle negative feedback with courage and grace.

The choice is always yours

Feedback is always there for the taking. What you do with it is ultimately up to you. You can either learn and grow from it or you can use it to criticise and beat yourself up with it. However, ignoring or denying it can be perilous. You may be losing clients or staff because they feel it’s not worth giving you feedback. You may also be losing out on promotion if you are too defensive or too self-critical. Sadly Peter was too arrogant for his own good. He didn’t respond to coaching and refused to believe that his team’s underperformance was anything to do with him, and when he asked for a promotion and a pay rise it was declined. Peter then threatened to leave and as the MD was not prepared to invest in someone who was not prepared to invest in himself, he let Peter go to seek opportunities elsewhere.

You may want to consider how well you know your managers or your people. Would you like the opportunity to discuss some of these issues with them in an open and non-threatening manner?

It is possible to measure where you and your people are on this Paradox and the eleven other Paradoxes in a special report that is now available through Talent4Performance. You can also discover their natural strengths and explore the best ways to utilise them, and what they need to be 100% engaged and motivated. To find out more just ask Gloria by contacting her at

Remember . . . stay curious!

David Klaasen

©David Klaasen – April 2016