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Being Leaders

How to Avoid Defensiveness

By Stephen Rex Goode

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Gilt bronze equestrian sculpture of Joan of Arc by Emmanuel Frémiet in Coe Circle (at NE 39th & Glisan) in the Laurelhurst neighborhood of Portland, Oregon, U.S.A

One of my favorite legends about Joan of Arc was when she told her generals that she was going to scale the wall of a certain city to take it back from the English. One general said, “No one will follow you over that wall.”

She replied, “I won’t be looking back to see if anyone is following.”

One of the biggest misconceptions about self-directed supports is that we are supposed to just follow along with everything a customer wants to do and that a customer who is resistant to change should not be influenced to change. While it is true that our customers choose the supports they want and how they are delivered, we have a responsibility to them and to those government entities that fund our work to use those funds appropriately.

A notable example of exceptions to self-directed supports is that we cannot provide supports that are not part of a customer’s service agreement. Similarly, though there is a lot of leeway in how supports are delivered, some things are highly inadvisable and others are downright illegal.

If you are showing up to your work and have this kind of exchange with your customer, you need to rethink your methods.

DSP: What do you want to do today?

Customer: I don’t know. What do you want to do?

DSP: It isn’t up to me to tell you what to do. You are the customer.

Customer: Well, let’s do something.

As ridiculous as this exchange may be, I’ve seen it happen. To be honest, when I got started in this work, I probably had exactly that same discussion. I learned in social work school all about self-determination, clients’ rights, and how to carry on a conversation with a client that was all about the client’s needs.

That was all good, but it doesn’t really accomplish anything if that’s where you stay. Our customers deserve more. If you find it tricky to honor your customer’s right to self-directed supports but are at a loss for how to convert that into productive work, especially with a customer who is resistant to change, then let’s talk about leadership.

Drew Stinson and I decided in the early days of this company that we wanted to be leaders, not managers. While we don’t always succeed, we make a constant effort to do what good leaders do. Those things also happen to be what good social workers do.

  • Set an example. This is why Drew and I still work with our own customers and why we expect our lead DSP’s to do the same. It is important that we not lose touch with what our employees face on the job from day to day. A good leader never asks those who follow to do anything that the leader is not willing to do. A good social worker never asks a customer to do things she is not willing to do. Don’t confuse this. That doesn’t mean that we “do for” a customer when a customer can do a thing for himself.
  • Be a good listener. See “Are You Listening?” A good manager can bark out orders and pressure people into doing things. A good leader thrives on feedback and listens when people are trying to tell him something, gathering information before making decisions.
  • Be knowledgeable. I don’t mean that you should be a know-it-all. I mean that a good leader knows what is expected and is always willing to learn.
  • Be flexible, or in other words, don’t be defensive. One of the most important qualities of a leader is non-defensiveness when dealing with criticism.

While there are a lot of attributes of a good leader, many more than I’ve mentioned here, I want to focus on this last one. It is important whether the leader is a director of the company, a team leader, or a member of the team. It is also important in both directions.

Whether a director is talking with a team leader or the team leader is talking with a director, discussions will bear the most fruit if both strive to not be defensive. Same goes with team leaders and team members and team members with customers.

Does it need to be said that not only should we avoided being defensive, but that we should trying even harder to avoid being offensive?

Ask yourself, “How can I be less defensive?”

Here are some suggestions:

  1. Assume good intentions. When someone says something that puts you in a defensive mode, stop and decide that you’ll give that person the benefit of the doubt.
  2. Accept that you make mistakes. Perhaps someone who is upset at you has a good reason.
  3. Ask questions. Be determined to get at the truth without getting upset.
  4. Focus on emotions. While the facts are important, you can’t diffuse a situation by citing facts. Find out what the other person is feeling. Speak with respect about those feelings and you’ll make an ally that is willing to work together to come up with solutions.
  5. I may seem to you, at this point, that I’ve changed the subject from motivating customers to how to get along with other people who work for the company. I assure you that what holds true for the one holds true for the other.

In my years as a behavior consultant, I saw that most customers with challenging behaviors were frustrated because they didn’t feel heard or respected. Aggression was their only recourse.

One could reframe this whole topic as a discussion about being passive, assertive, or aggressive. The mock discussion above was a representation of a passive worker. Not much will ever get done between such a worker and a customer.

Being defensive is a form of aggression. It is, at best, unproductive, and at worst, abusive.

Where we want to be is to practice leadership by being assertive, which I define as being as interested in others’ rights as I am interested in mine, and being very interested in mine.

The next time a leader in your company tells you what to do, or a customer gets upset at you, or a member of a customer’s family criticizes you, stop and take a deep breath. Ask yourself, “Do I need to change how I react to things like this?”

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