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4 ways to create a more collaborative culture

Create a collaborative culture by tamping down your own defensiveness as a leader and listening more, writes Marlene Chism.

5 min read


collaborative culture

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Marlene Chism

Whether it’s criticism, embarrassment or unresolved conflict, anything threatening credibility, self-worth or identity can trigger defensiveness. High-level leaders aren’t immune to wanting to shield themselves from vulnerability. The first form of self-protection is defensiveness. Rather than protecting the leader, defensiveness has the opposite effect: exposing insecurities and making the leader seem arrogant or unapproachable. Here are four ways leaders can stop being defensive and create a more collaborative culture.

Notice your triggers

A trigger is when thought and emotion combine to create an unwanted experience, such as being sarcastic or losing your temper. Everyone’s triggers (and reactions) are different. Common triggers can include a sound, a comment or a situation that feels like a threat. For example, an employee comments in a meeting, and you blow up. At first, you feel justified, only to have regrets later.

When you get triggered, your emotional brain hijacks your thinking brain. This almond-shaped structure called the amygdala floods your body with hormones that stimulate a fight-or-flight response. You lose your rational mind. It can take 20 minutes or longer to come to your senses. 

Here are some questions to get to the root of your trigger:

  • Who is the person?
  • What is the situation?
  • What is the trigger reaction?
  • How do you wish to respond in the future?

The benefit of knowing your triggers is seeing patterns, gaining control and being able to respond instead of reacting.

Buy some time

When you feel misunderstood, it’s easy to go into defense mode. For example, when you’re receiving critical feedback that you didn’t expect, it’s common to start debating instead of listening. For example, an executive director receives critical feedback about their management style. In the next meeting, they justify their past decisions by listing their accomplishments instead of admitting the need for course correction. The desire to be understood overrides the ability to listen and apply critical feedback.  Acknowledging what has been said is needed, with a plan to correct the behavior. 

Here are some ways to buy time when you’ve been caught off guard or feel misunderstood:

  • I admit that surprised me. 
  • I need time to process this before I respond.
  • Let me think about how to apply this feedback.
  • I’d like to reflect on this and meet again next week to discuss it.

The benefit of buying time is to process unwanted and unexpected information so you can plan how to respond in a way that shows you are listening and working on improvement.

Take control of your narrative

It’s easy to act defensively when you’re experiencing uncertainty. A new poll conducted by Robin Pou firm found that 56% of leaders question their leadership monthly, and this insecurity contributes to leadership doubt.  The top reasons leaders don’t discuss their doubts are fear of losing credibility, looking weak and believing they must have all the answers. These beliefs become narratives that contribute to the behavior of defending one’s worth. 

Here are some ways to take control of your narrative when experiencing doubt:

  • Am I working from feelings or facts?
  • It’s OK for me to seek coaching to improve.
  • Who could I discuss this with to gain perspective?
  • What am I supposed to learn from this experience?

The benefit of controlling your narrative is that you can more easily self-regulate. An added benefit is the ability to coach your employees when you notice their self-defeating narrative.  

Question uncertain motives

Sometimes, you aren’t in the wrong; sometimes, other people have hidden agendas. Rather than getting triggered, question uncertain motives. For example, if someone says something sarcastic like, “You need to hear what the team thinks about your last decision,” don’t take the bait by engaging. Don’t allow people to play “power of attorney” by representing others who aren’t in the room. It sounds like, “Chris, I can’t let you speak for everyone else. Let’s bring the team together to discuss.” 

Here are some other ways to question uncertain motives:

  • What’s your intention for telling me that? 
  • It sounds like you’re angry. Is that true?
  • I interpret your silence as disagreement. Am I wrong?
  • Walk me through your thought process.

The benefit of questioning uncertain motives is that it lets the other person know how you interpret their behavior. Even if the other person denies their hidden motives, they often discontinue the questionable behavior.

Defensiveness is a human reaction to protect oneself from perceived threats. With awareness and practice, leaders who learn to control defensiveness set the stage for open conversations that reduce conflict and promote a collaborative culture.  


Marlene Chism is a consultant, speaker, and author of “From Conflict to Courage: How to Stop Avoiding and Start Leading(Berrett-Koehler 2022). She is a recognized expert on the LinkedIn Global Learning platform. Connect with Chism via LinkedIn or at

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own. 


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