04 September 2022 |

Getting defensive is a leadership trap

By Jacob Espinoza

“It’s you, Jacob. You are the problem. You used to be so positive. Now all we hear about is what we are doing wrong.”

These words hurt my soul.

It was not the feedback I wanted to hear, but it was what I needed to hear.

I was a new manager fueled by ambition. My only goal was to be the best. I didn’t care what it took.

The team I was assigned to was full of misfits and newbies.

And the month before I got this feedback, we shocked the world. Finishing #2 on the corporate stack rank. (I was really proud of this at the time.)

It was only my third month with the team. People were starting to notice that we were having fun, creating excitement, and delivering results. 

Moving from almost the bottom to almost the top in such a short amount felt incredible. 

And I wanted MORE!

My “Let’s get better today” mentality changed to “It’s not good enough until we are the best.”

I was determined to find everything that was preventing our team from reaching the top.

They said they wanted to be #1 also. I thought they understood why I was doing what I was doing.

The more I focused on the team’s opportunities, the worse we did. 

Nobody was having fun. Instead of thriving, they were doing the bare minimum. Some of them avoided eye contact when I talked to them. People started calling out sick more often.

I was working harder than ever, and we sucked.

After about three weeks of hitting my head against the wall, I brought the team together for a meeting.

“I don’t know what is different,” I told them. “We were crushing it, and now we are struggling. The energy is different. I’m going to walk away. I need you all to talk about what is going on and what needs to change. I’ll be back to hear your plan.”

I left, assuming they would rally together and return, realizing they needed to expect more of themselves. (How naive I was!)

When I got back, they told me I was the problem.

Instead of listening, I got defensive.

The problem with receiving feedback when you are an ambitious person is that it’s hard to imagine that you are the problem when you are working twice as hard as everyone else.

I asked my team what they were doing to step up as leaders instead of looking to me to inspire them. 

It was absolutely the wrong place and time for this conversation. I looked around the room and saw a few people rolling their eyes. A few people crossed their arms.

This was getting bad. I legitimately could have lost my team at this moment. 

But fortunately, a few of them cared enough not to let me off the hook. 

“It’s you, Jacob. You are the problem. You used to be so positive. Now, all we hear about is what we are doing wrong.”

I needed to hear the feedback directly.

Hearing it again made me see how wrong my approach was. 

We were at our best when we prioritized celebrating successes, learning from losses, and building on strengths.

My focus on becoming hyper-critical only created disengagement–even though I had good intentions.

Fortunately, all trust wasn’t broken, and I had a team willing to share the feedback I needed to hear.

I started having more fun at work, the team enjoyed the atmosphere again, and we started winning.

Does anyone remember that we were the #1 team for two months after that? No.

But I still occasionally receive messages from teammates about how much they valued that experience and what a supportive community we were.

You lose your team when you become oblivious to what it is like to work for you.