Last time I wrote about Advocacy as an impediment to the logical give and take that distinguishes collaboration. I characterized it as a learned behavior, and one that can be partially or fully managed by a skilled communicator that recognizes it and knows how to steer a group around it. I also mentioned another impediment - Defensiveness. That is the subject this week.

First of all, I know it is a little obvious that these are learned behaviors. I mean, we are not born knowing how to communicate a position as an advocate. Our natural position (so I am lead to believe) is simply to want to do what is best for us, and we are not at all picky about being the author of the idea. Early in life, it seems that we become aware that what is often best for us is to be the author of good ideas. And not just a few, but a LOT. And we should have them frequently. And they should outstandingly productive and profitable. This is recognized as competitive advantage and one highly sought. We learn this in school – that we are rewarded for having the best ideas. This teaches us that it is wise to be able to advocate a position, and exclude others. There comes a time in everyone’s life when they are presenting their idea, sure that it is the right one, and we hear another one – a better one. If at that moment, you begin to support the better idea, or you choose to question it to see if it is really better, or you begin mixing the best parts of your idea with the best parts of theirs; CONGRATULATIONS! You are collaborating.

If (on the other hand) when faced with the better idea, you dismiss it, or discredit the person presenting it, or use half-truths to make your idea look better, or omit important unknowns about your idea to make it more likely to be accepted (and therein increase your competitive advantage), you are advocating.

Defensiveness is just as universal as Advocacy, but not nearly as simple. Defensiveness comes into play when some parties in the conversation feel that an open and authentic exchange of information is not safe. They begin to tailor their words and their level of participation because they feel a need to defend themselves from some threat, real or imagined.

So Defensiveness is the impediment to a collaboration resulting from a real or imagined lack of safety. What causes that?

The answer is that it depends on the individual, and I know that is a TERRIBLE answer so I will try to fix it. There are two general categories:
· Credibility – The person doesn’t feel safe because they perceive a problem with the credibility of someone in the collaboration. If someone thinks they are dealing with someone that isn’t credible, they often begin to censor what they say.
· Respect – The person doesn’t feel safe because they feel disrespected by or feel disrespect for someone in the collaboration. If someone feels they are being treated disrespectfully, or their dignity is being threatened, or that the person with whom they are dealing is unrespectable, they often begin to censor what they say.

These are the general categories, and their contents vary from person to person based on many things. I once worked with a person that kept me at arm’s length, never really sharing their thoughts on our business dealings with me. It was very uncomfortable for us both. After a series of talks about it, she admitted that she considered me unprofessional. I was very surprised. We had done a lot of good things together and I considered myself to be VERY professional in all if my dealings with her. After a few more conversations, she told me it was my appearance. My hair was long for her tastes, and I seldom (very, very seldom) ever wore a suit or even a tie. We had some conversations and eventually we agreed that I could be very effective in doing my job and would wear a tie on any occasion she felt would be enhanced by that level of “professionalism”. We further agreed that she would tell me when those occasions arose.

My point is that the root causes of Defensiveness in communication vary, but fall into a small number of general categories. In the next few newsletters, I will describe the most common things that underlie defensiveness and ways to create sufficient safety to overcome them.

This is very important because keeping Defensiveness under control is the way to keep collaboration productive.

Author's Bio: 

Gregg Oliver has worked as an individual contributor and manager in engineering and manufacturing businesses for over 30 years. He is certified as a Quality Engineer, Reliability Engineer and a Software Quality Engineer by the American Society for Quality. He also serves as the Vice Chair for the San Diego section of the American Society for Quality. His passions are problem solving and communication.

Background -

In order to find solutions to the issues that bogged down improvement and problem solving teams, Gregg studied and practiced for over 15 years to develop a potent amalgam of high-performance communication practices. These practices blend powerful communication, relationship-improvement, and influence-creation techniques that transform practitioners into skilled leaders and confident change agents.