McKella Kinch
November 3, 2023

How Defensiveness Kills Collaboration…and What to Do About It

How Defensiveness Kills Collaboration…and What to Do About It

We’re a big collaborative culture here at Redmond. In fact, we believe collaboration is a great way—possibly even the BEST way— to accomplish just about anything in life and work. 

But collaboration isn’t always easy. Though we humans are naturally social creatures, we also have a lot of emotions and behaviors that can get in the way of productive collaboration. 

What’s one of the biggest roadblocks to collaboration? The winner is…(drumroll)...defensiveness. 

You know what this looks like. You’re in a meeting and someone offers their perspective, idea, or a potential change, and for some reason, your hackles go up. You feel like saying “But…” or “That won’t work because…” or simply “No.” You want to shut the conversation down. 

Defensiveness can look like this, or even like actively sabotaging collaboration by walking out, steamrolling, or flat-out refusing to respond. 

So, why do we get defensive, and what can we do about it? 

Former judge Jim Tamm has seen a LOT of conflict and defensiveness in his long career, and he’s narrowed the process of overcoming defensiveness down to a few simple steps. (Not necessarily EASY, but simple.)

Watch his Ted Talk to learn why we get defensive and what to do about it.

Main Takeaways: 

  • Collaboration helps us be more productive as a group.
  • We can’t resolve conflict or work together if we’re stuck in unconscious defensive reactions.
  • Learn to identify the signs that you’re in defensive mode.
  • Once you’ve identified those signs, you can take action to come back to a more collaborative frame of mind.

Let’s take a closer look at those.

How to Be Less Defensive (and More Collaborative)

Collaboration helps us be more productive as a group

Collaboration helps us be more productive

In his talk, Jim cites a study about chickens.

In this study, a Purdue University professor looked at two groups of chickens; hens that generally got along (dubbed “green zone” chickens) and a group that had clear top performers who laid more eggs than the others. Tamm refers to this second group as “red zone” chickens because those standouts actually got that way not by being great layers, but by pecking other chickens and suppressing their egg production. 

The end result? The few surviving red zone chickens were skinny and lost most of their feathers, while the green zone chickens were healthy. Ironically, the productivity of the green zone chickens increased by 260%! 

We can learn a few things from these chickens: 

1- When we collaborate effectively, the overall productivity and well-being of the group increase. 

2- Getting defensive, competing, or suppressing others doesn’t lead to real success. 

Like the green zone chickens whose productivity skyrocketed, we know that we can do so much more together than we can alone. If we work together toward the same goal, our efforts become multiplied, and we get where we’re going a lot faster, without losing all our feathers in the process. (K, that might be taking the metaphor a little too far.)

At Redmond, we strive for win-win situations. We want EVERYONE to succeed and find fulfillment in body, heart, mind, and spirit. 

And also, it’s just easier to get things done when people aren’t actively trying to sabotage each other. (We’re looking at you, Red Zone chickens.)

We can’t resolve conflict or work together if we’re stuck in unconscious defensive reactions.

Have you heard what happens when you put a bunch of crabs in a bucket? 

Apparently, if one crab tries to climb out, the others will grab it and pull it back down. 

This is a pretty common metaphor, but have you ever wondered, “If crabs can actually climb out, why don’t they just help each other so they can ALL get out instead of wasting time holding each other back?” 

When you’re feeling defensive, you’re not open to collaboration. In fact, you’re closed up tighter than that pickle jar that’s been in the back of your fridge for six months.

But why do we get defensive in the first place? (And if you’re thinking “But I don’t get defensive!” right now, listen up.)

According to Jim, we get defensive in order to avoid feeling fear. 

This might be a fear of change, fear of chaos, of losing what we have, of being wrong or looking foolish, of being vulnerable…the list goes on and on.

We want to protect their turf. We don’t want to lose what we have. Change can be scary, so we often get defensive and start tearing down anything that might poke at those fears.

This can be a tough pill to swallow because facing that fear can feel very vulnerable.

When we’re afraid and protecting ourselves—or even blaming/attacking others—we’re not in a good place to resolve conflict or find productive solutions. We’re too busy shielding ourselves and dancing around those fears lurking inside us. We’re actively closing ourselves off to potential solutions. 

No one stops to talk or reason on a battlefield. There’s only attacking and defending. That’s not how problems get solved. (Unless you want to end up like those Red Zone chickens.) That’s also not how we create innovative solutions, develop great products and processes, or have a positive impact on the world.

Step 1: Learn to identify the signs that you’re in defensive mode

We can’t always control when we start feeling defensive, so how do we STOP being defensive? 

The first step is to notice that you’re feeling defensive. How do you ACT when you’re feeling defensive? How do you FEEL in your body?

Maybe you start talking circles around everyone and flooding your “opponent” with information.

Maybe you start talking louder.

Maybe you stop talking completely.

Look for signs like your heart beating faster, your breathing growing shallow, sweating, the desire to be right or have the last word, the desire to deflect, etc. 

Some people want to hide or disappear when they feel threatened, while others get aggressive. Some want to just get it over with in any way possible.

This requires a certain amount of self-discovery and self-awareness, which is something we try to cultivate at Redmond. In fact, it’s even in our mission statement! 

“We want to live in a world with people who are eager for self-discovery, where these intentional and aware individuals come together to form exceptional teams. And when those teams come together to pursue what’s possible and to make contributions that really matter.”

That’s a lofty goal, but it starts with the little things. For now, just notice how you feel and act when you’re in defense mode. 

Step 2: Take actions to calm down

Once you’ve identified those signs that you’re on defense, you can take steps to come back to a more collaborative frame of mind.

We can’t always control when we’re feeling defensive, but with practice, we can control how we respond to those emotions. 

Your goal is to come back to a more neutral state. This might mean taking a few deep breaths. Maybe you take a short walk, if you’re able. Maybe instead of talking, you let others talk for a few minutes while you listen. 

It’s hard to do this in the moment. It’s hard to talk yourself down when your #1 priority is to protect yourself. 

But keep noticing and keep taking your action steps until they become habits. Slowly, you’ll get better!

Step 3: Take action when you’re not in the thick of things. 

Improve yourself

This is one reason why we do culture meetings, monthly culture topics, and retreats at Redmond. This is why we have a whole culture team: to learn and practice new, helpful ideas so we can slowly rewire our brains to be more collaborative, more productive, and happier.

Work on your self-awareness when you’re not riled up. Practice Ubuntu and Occhiolism so you can see yourself and others more clearly, and realize that your perspective is just one way of looking at things.

It takes time and work, and the hardest time to do it is when tensions are high. But this in-between work and repetition make things a lot easier when you’re in a situation that’s winding you up, and you start noticing that you’re getting defensive. 

Collaboration is a Practice

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” -African proverb

Collaboration is living and operating in a way that makes synergy possible. 

It’s a way of being and functioning as part of an effective team, whether that team is your work team, your family, your partnership, church congregation, volunteer group, town, or society as a whole. 

Collaboration does take effort, especially when we’re working with human emotions like fear, and within a culture that tells us that it’s more important to be a star than part of an effective team.

Above all, collaboration is a way of being. It’s a mindset where you’re always trying to understand other perspectives and what’s going on around you. It’s curiosity and paying attention.

This is the kind of collaboration we cultivate at Redmond. When we’re in a good groove with collaboration, it feels natural, and like it’s simply the best way to do things!