I have a direct report who is very difficult to coach.  Any feedback that is not 100% complimentary or positive is met with a very defensive posture, almost "aggressively defensive" if there is such a thing....   

He seems to be extremely sensitive, and perhaps rooted in some deep seated insecurities, I'm not sure.    It is very frustrating, as the response to positively worded constructive criticism is so defensive that it borders on disrespect, and it seems to convey the message that he feels he is always 100% right, never in the wrong, and here's a million reasons why.

I'm not expecting a "gee I really screwed up here", but I dont even get a hint of "well, perhaps with the benefit of hindsight, if I had made a slightest change there in 1 tiny area that may have had a positive influence on the outcome."  

Local HR person is not very helpful except to point out that it is almost impossible to truly coach/mentor/develop someone who does not want to be coached, and I'm beginning to suspect she is right.

I feel that working with someone is more productive, if you can get them to see what they did wrong, then the drive to change comes from within.   That does not seem to work with this person.     They have been with the company for 10 years, and it seems nobody has challenged them before, which they bring up as proof of not needing to change now.

Help !





bug_girl's picture

I had a direct that was similarly a challenge. Keep reaching out, show that you want to work with the person, and be very clear about what you want them to do and what performance goals/standards you expect them to reach.

Over time, they may  start to loosen up. Or, they may continue to show up in 1-on-1s with a major chip on their shoulder.  
All you can do is extend the olive branch out--you can't make them grab it.

You might also find some help in reviewing the styles of feedback appropriate for each DISC style--it may be that you have different styles of communication, and he's hearing something other than what you think you are are saying.


Dani Martin's picture
Licensee Badge

AnnO --

I wrote a long answer to your post with our (Manager Tools) recommendations but I don't think it will be as helpful to you as it could be because you haven't described your direct's behaviors. If you respond with his behaviors, I can provide you with specific recommendations that would be more useful to you. For example, what do you mean by he's difficult to coach? Are you using our Coaching Model? What do you mean by "defensive posture" and "aggressively defensive"? What are his specific behaviors?

Here at Manager Tools we don't concern ourselves with directs' insecurities or sensitivities or motivations behind their behaviors. We only address their behaviors.

Provide me with some specifics and I'll be happy to provide you with our guidance.


Dani Martin
Manager Tools Team Member

naraa's picture
Training Badge

 I had a direct that reacted similarly to how you describe yours react.  I ended up giving up on her: "too high maintenance".  She closed so much to external input that she started working in disconnection, in isolation from everybody else that she seized to be productive.  She was fired.  This is now 3 years ago.

I recently received an email from her thanking me for the guidance I had given her and that she finally understood the importance of her controlling her temper which I had so often given feedback to her on.

Some people need to go to a crisis to change.

That said if your direct is being defensive but is changing his behavior, focus on the change in behavior. It really does not matter how they react as long as they change and you don't have to give the same feedback over and over again.

Looking back at my feedback actions though I didn't know manager-tools well back then and my feedbacks were rather long and painful, for both of us.  I would probably have gotten better results if I hadn't let her defensiveness affect me back then.  


AnnO's picture

 Bug_girl and Naraa both hit close to home:  "Major chip on his shoulder" and "High maintenance".

He is convinced that the company has repeatedly wronged him in the past, or disrespected him, or treated him unfairly.
Complains that someone in another group who has been there less time has received a promotion, and he has not. This other person is a member of a larger group, he is in a much smaller team, where there is nowhere to go, regardless of performance.   I've felt under appreciated myself at other companies, and I've just left the organization instead of staying for 10 years and complaining.
Basically, he is not open minded, but enters into each discussion convinced that it is another chance for the company to display how unfair it is to him, and will latch onto anything that could be twisted around to support his position, while ignoring the rest of the facts.  He seems quite selectively perceptive and only remembers events that were negative from his point to support his argument.  When I try and calmly point out facts which do not support his argument, he gets increasingly animated and upset.  He has even said that he cant comprehend why I cant understand his position (ie: why cant I see he is right).    
No matter what you say, he has a defensive response/excuse for it.  Not once have I heard sorry, or maybe I could have done that better or differently.  Nothing is ever his fault.   He seems to have a need to have an answer for everything, and thus some of the responses become more and more absurd as the discussion continues and his position falls apart, since he cannot stand to not have some kind of excuse for each point mentioned.   If he dropped a laptop on the floor and broke it, before you could get a word in edgewise, he would tell you that the carpet is too sticky and caused him to trip, or the lights are too bright and blinded him, or he is tired because he is forced to work too hard, etc.  Whatever the problem is, it certainly does not lie with him.  
I'm not an expert, but I would think that understanding the motivations behind the behaviours would assist greatly in formulating the response that would be the most effective.  I have no illusions that I can "fix" the root cause (issues at home or whatever it is), but knowing why he is like that would surely be another tool to maximize the chance that my approach hits home, rather than making things worse.

naraa's picture
Training Badge


My experience has been he needs to get out of the loop he got himself into by himself.  No amount of effort you put in will pay off.  If your company has a psycologist you can get a psycologist to help him.  You need to focus on the behavior, on making the feedback as quick as you possible can, and passing clearly the message that you are not going to get into any argument regarding the reasons for his behavior.  What perhaps you can do to make things easier is show sympathy, show comprehension to what and how he is feeling, I know that is hard to do, but that that needs to be left in the past, that he needs to focus on the present and on the future.

Whenever people that works for me come complaining about something I draw a big circle in the chart and a small one.  I tell them: "the big circle is the company, you are the small circle.  What you are doing is pointing the problem to the bigger circle on which you have no influence what so ever.  You do have influence do over your own circle and influence (draw an arrow leaving and coming back to the circle), so you must look at how you can modify your behaviour to make things work and by doing that that gradually will happen is that your circle of influence will increase."  I do that for a couple of times and soon enough they learn that there is no point in bringing excuses or pointing the finger to the problem to somebody else.

My recommendation to you is: give the feedback, if he comes with excuses, tell him that that´s not the point, you want him to see what he can do differently next time, and acknowledge that if he is indeed right (for example he did not do what you are saying he did) then it will not happen again, so there is nothing to worry.  He will still get the feedback.  And do it lightly, with a smile in your face, cheerfully.  Listen to the there is no why in feedback podcasts (link of part 1 bellow). 

And you don´t need to hear a "I am sorry" sentence.  Some people are uncapable of saying that, but that has nothing to do with them being effective.  In fact you can even notice that they are indeed sorry, even if they don´t mention it, through the change in their actions, and that can be enough.  I have this sentence I use in managing people which has broght me good results, I learned it from my boss and I use it: "Nothing you say can ever be hold against you.", or a different version: "Nothing you say can ever offend me."  Soon enough, they learned that it is not an appropriate behavior.  But if you react too harshly to that behavior, if you let it affect you, it is almost as if actually encourages it rather then the other way around.  The root cause for that frustration, in my experience, has nothing to do with the company itself, but with various reasons such as lack of attention from the parents, or accumulated frustrations in a number of different dimensions in the persons life.  Unless you have a psycology degree (and sometimes even if you do), there is no way you can sort it out!

AnnO's picture

 Thanks for the advice Nara, I think I will try the diagram with 2 circles.  I just fear that to make an effective transformation, a person has to WANT to change.  The way there is an excuse for everything, suggests to me that he thinks that he is not part of the problem at all, and thus there is no real incentive for him to modify his behavior, because in his mind, all issues are caused 100% by things out of his control.  

 Why would he be open to listening to advice of how to hold the laptop differently to avoid it falling next time, when he is convinced that 1 grip vs another is irrelevant, the carpet or lighting are the cause of his obstacles.  I suppose I could say "as your boss I command you to hold it this way", which may result in it not being dropped, but also result in a person who feels even more disenfranchised, and is thus even less effective as they go thru the motions in their other tasks.  I am clearly no expert on management, but this I am sure of : efforts driven by internal incentive are more powerful and sincere than efforts driven by external factors such as fear.
I understand that the end behaviour is all that really matters.   To me, coaching is about getting the best out of someone.  If you can light their fire within, so they do the right thing because they want to themselves, that is far more powerful than the "do this because I said so and I am the boss" approach.   Perhaps I am naive, but I know I have worked harder and done a better job for bosses who treated me that way than bosses who took the controlling approach.    I've gone thru the "there is no why in feedback", and to be perfectly frank, I have to say that with all due respect, I dont entirely agree with it because I dont think that is how someone would get the best out of me.  I was hoping for an alternative approach.

Solitaire's picture

This is a very difficult situation and I have managed a few people like this over the years. I have managed to get some improvements in behaviour, but not totally been able to change what I also feel is their incumbent personality.

One thing I would suggest is that you focus on them giving you the answer to "what they will do differently next time". Stay silent when you have asked the question. If they just give reasons and excuses then be sympathetic, but keep repeating to him that you are not looking for reasons, that you only want to know what they can do to improve the situation. If they can't think of anything immediately, ask them to have a think about it over-night and set up a meeting to review the situation with them again the next day, when they have had a chance to come up with something.

People who come up with their own ideas for improvements are much more committed to making sure those improvements happen than if you tell them what to do.

If their solution is still focussed on the carpet or the lighting (perhaps he would suggest wearing sunglasses in the office or getting the carpet cleaned!) then if there is no risk to others or not too much of an expense, let him act on his suggestion. It may work, you could be surprised! If not then you can revisit the issue later until he will hopefully suggest the solution of a different grip of his own accord.

I do find this hard to do. I naturally want to come up with suggestions for problems and have to work very hard to keep my mouth shut when I am trying to get a direct to come up with their own ideas.

Good luck!


bug_girl's picture

Dani is right, focusing on behaviors is key, since you can't know what's going on in his head, or what his motivations are.

You can't really "fix" attitude, nor can you command it improve.
But you can change behavior, and demand results.



jhowse's picture
Licensee BadgeTraining Badge

Hi Ann,


I read your post with keen interest as I too have a direct who is very defensive that I struggle to get through to about behaviour.  She is a perfectionist, and tends to complain about the performance and behaviour of others, externalising blame when she does not meet a deadline or makes mistakes.


If I give adjusting feedback she will dispute it.  She will try to engage in lengthy discussion justifying her behaviour to prove me wrong.  In the past I would get bogged down, now I try to follow the advice of George Bernard Shaw: "I learned long ago, never wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it."  I tend to use the shot across the bow approach and say ok and let it go.  I find even when she has the last word, she will still reflect on what we have talked about and sometimes modifies her future behavior anyway.


As a high C I probably don't give enough positive feedback, so I have to make a conscious effort to emphasize what this person does well and praise them for it, often.  Is your direct good at anything? Do you praise and thank them for it?


When I do give feedback I try to do it as soon as possible and try to keep it low key, lighthearted even.  This person is ultra sensitive about perceived criticism and even over seemingly minor things, not just feedback, can stew for days and then engage in a discussion disputing the validity of what has been said.

Ultimately, this person struggles with talking about their behaviour. So I really try to emphasize results in our dialogue.  If expected results are not achieved I ask for her suggestions as to what can be done about it.  As the conversation leads towards behaviour; she will try to emphasize the behaviour of others "if only people did their jobs properly!" is a familiar repose. Sometimes though there will be a rare moment of self-reflection, a small breakthrough, enough to make me cheer inside and keep persisting.

I am by no means "there" with this person. I have struggled and no doubt will continue to.  Ultimately though I know she is a good person with good intentions and she does produce quality work.  And so I persevere.

I am not saying my situation is the same as yours, but I do empathise and wish you the best in your efforts.



Singers's picture

I would very much focus on feedback - after so many instances of feedback (where you dont let her argue, simply give her feedback) - discuss it in your next 1:1 and continue to follow up like that. If over time that does not help you should then have the evidence to go further.

Kind Regards
Mads Sorensen
Disc 4536