Do you know someone who acts as if they're always right, is consistently defensive to feedback, who always blames others, and can never take any responsibility for their part of a problem?
In defence of these people, we are all creatures of habit - some good habits and others not so good. And these people may well have spent their entire life protecting themselves and coping with difficulties with others in this way.
Given that we are all imperfect, they are allowed to have their (unstated) flaws like the rest of us. But having said that, the worst personal flaw we can have is to believe that we don’t have any.
If we can't acknowledge our own areas for improvement to ourselves, this keeps us trapped in unhelpful patterns of behaviour. And, if we can't take responsibility for our contribution for a difficulty with others, this only adds hurt to that relationship.
So, what can we do to influence such people to be more open to feedback and admit they are human, after all?
How to deal with difficult work colleagues
- Build a more positive relationship
If we want people to be more receptive to feedback, it always helps to build a more positive working relationship, rather than one that is strained or distant. We build such relationships when we get to know people and let them get to know us, when we break any negative stereotype they may have of us, find areas of common ground, and increase the positive interactions.
A stronger relationship tends to have higher levels of trust. So that when constructive feedback is needed, the other person knows it is coming from a good place. Even if such feedback is challenging, the positive interactions significantly outweigh the negative ones.
- Give clear messages
Provide messages that are supportive of the changes you are wanting to see. For example, that we are all human, we can all do our part to help for the future, and that we all need to be open to feedback as this is one of the ways that we improve.
These messages normalise imperfections and make it easier to be open to feedback. Apart from being true, they also appeal to our sense of fairness - that, often, all parties can do their part to help. Such messages are particularly powerful in workplaces when they come from someone in a leadership role and with whom they have a relationship of trust.
- Model the right behaviour
It takes self-control to do this, particularly when someone is defensive and highly-emotive. But, as the saying goes, someone has to be the adult here. It is harder to act in a defensive way with people who acknowledge their own imperfections, are open to feedback themselves, and offering what they can do to help.
Such behaviour tends to encourage reciprocity. If you are defensive yourself, this will only encourage similar behaviour from the other person. We also tend to like people who can makes jokes at their own expense, as this makes them more approachable.
- Change your approach
What we say has to be kind, it has to be true, it has to be helpful, and it has to be well-timed. So, approaching the conversation with kindness and helpfulness will certainly help. But, of course, we are often worked up ourselves and do not always get the timing right. So, give yourself and the other person time to settle and prepare, whenever this is possible.
You can also soften the blow by asking permission to have the conversation, reassuring them of a good intention (that you want to work it out), and defining the problem in a face-saving way (a misunderstanding, both strong personalities or under pressure), before exploring solutions for the future.
- External reinforcement
Someone from outside of your team or workplace can often reinforce messages or communicate them in a fresh way. They can also bring expertise to the situation, or get away with saying certain things that need to be said.
Training can also help colleagues learn to welcome feedback, respond well even to feedback they disagree with or which is given poorly, and find solutions for the future.
It can be argued that people who are defensive to feedback are often lacking the self-awareness and skills required to take it on board. Can these skills be learned? For the majority of us, the answer is a definite yes.
We all have to work on something. We are best to keep the focus on our own behaviour - to work on our own flaws and what we can do to turn a difficult situation around.