Metabolizing Negative Reality Like Defensiveness

Nobody likes bad news. Especially when the reality of what you are trying to process just does not line up with how you see things.

In my executive coaching practice, I am able to observe the above reality quite often through one of the tools that I use; the Interview 360.

When a new client signs up with me, one of the primary things they are trying to understand is how they are viewed in their organization by other folks. The second thing they are trying to gain awareness around is how the perceptions of others line up how they see themselves.


The Interview 360 is a tool that is meant to bring some clarity to the self-awareness of the leader.

The closer the leader’s self-awareness is to the perceptions of others, then we say there is a higher likelihood that how that leader thinks they show up is in fact what others are experiencing.

Leaders whose self-awareness is aligned with those in the organization have a pretty good idea of what their strengths are and they also have a keen idea of what their opportunities for growth might be.

Not all leaders I work with experience this level of alignment!

In collecting feedback for a leader, it becomes fairly easy to tell when a leader has made a mistake, or not treated others in a professional manner, or maybe they just don’t listen very well. The issues for misalignment can be vast and quite varied. Often they are contextual to certain types of organization relationships, like with direct reports or with peers.

When this misalignment occurs, the thing I hear most from the client I am working with is, “That was not my intention!”

This statement is then followed by some type of rationalization:

  • I sure didn’t mean to react that way.

  • I actually thought I had a mandate from leadership to do what I did.

  • I am being penalized for my boss not showing up and leaving me exposed.

  • My action was totally taken out of context, that is not who I am.


Leaders often get charged with being defensive when situations like this occur. Defensiveness is a very typical immediate type of reaction. I never fault a client for being defensive initially.

The problem with a defensive posture in the long-run is that it inhibits the leader from being able to learn and grow from the precipitating event.

Likely, this defensiveness over the long term is a leader’s inability to metabolize negative reality.

At times, people struggle to completely understand the feedback they have received. Best selling author, John Townsend, says leaders who struggle in this area are really struggling with their ability to accept imperfection.

Leaders who maintain long-term defensives might be struggling with issues of embarrassment, shame, and even deep-seated narcissism. This defensiveness can wreak havoc with a leader’s self-confidence, their ability to tolerate stress, and even cause them to be much less trusting in previously trusted relationships.

Thermostat or Thermometer

As I am working with clients who are defensive in processing negative realities, an analogy that has worked for me is to challenge the leader to see themselves as a thermostat instead of a thermometer.

Leaders who act like thermometers allow their emotions to rise and fall based upon what they are feeling in the moment. When any of us receives feedback that creates a negative reality for us, this is a common occurrence. No one likes to be called out as an adult for behavior that is not valued by the organization, especially if this behavior has been rewarded in the past (If not overtly rewarded, at least not recognized and overlooked).

For most of us, these negative realities will fade a bit from our current memory, we become almost numb to the event. Compartmentalizing it as an isolated issue and covering it up with an “it really doesn’t bother me that much” band-aide.

Then, all of a sudden, out of nowhere something will happen and the entire experience of the negative reality will come back to light. Perhaps someone gets a promotion that you were in line for, until the negative reality event. Or maybe you get passed over for a bonus you otherwise would have fully deserved! Then it is like a fire-cracker has been lit off inside you and your emotional temperature just skyrockets.

A very high-risk place for a leader to be.

The coaching I do with leaders who have experienced negative realities is to help them see themselves more as a thermostat rather than a thermometer. The goal here is for them to take an accurate account of the entire environment around them and then control the environment.

Thermometers measure the temperature in only one place and are a reflection of their environment. A thermostat has a much broader perspective of what is going on and can see a much bigger picture and then be more in control of the narrative.

How About You

Have you experienced any negative realities lately? Something not go your way? Did you get some feedback that maybe you didn’t agree with or that really set you back?

You have a choice in terms of how you respond. I think initially we are all a bit like thermometers. So give yourself some grace here. Then, as time goes on, the real challenge for you is are you going to stay a thermometer or are you going to grow into a thermostat? What is the upside if you grow? Also, what is the downside if you stay a thermometer?