Retail Career Obstacle: Defensiveness

Retail Career Obstacle: Defensiveness

We, none of us, actually enjoy hearing about our shortcomings, or performance issues but if we truly want to achieve professional (and even personal) success we have to be open to:
(a) identifying our weaknesses (and implementing a plan or seeking information on how to improve) and
(b) hearing other people talk about our opportunity areas from their point-of-view.

Defensiveness is one area can effect so many others in a negative way unless we learn to embrace identifying or, if we are incapable of doing so, listening to people coach us on our professional weakness. When accepting feedback from superiors or even peers and you are open to it you will set the tone that:

-You take criticism as an opportunity to improve
-You are a strong active listener and
-You are respectful of others opinions
-You are open and transparent to admit your professional hurdles
-You take personal responsibility for your results
-You welcome an opportunity improve and develop

When you become defensive and are unwilling to accept feedback or identify obstacles in your performance you set the tone that, as a employee:

-You are not ready to be a leader
-You lack the ability to listen
-You are not interested or driven for professional growth
-You are, likely, to be incapable of professional objectivity
-You lack professional composure
-You, probably, are not the strongest contributor on your team

Between the two lists – which one would you prefer to be identified with?

It is very unlikely in this day and age that someone would sit you down and just make it an exercise to point out your flaws. Leadership has definitely evolved and feedback is delivered in a timely fashion and, typically, in a manner that is meant to support and encourage growth. As leaders we are very cognizant how delivering information can be embraced and valuable, if delivered in an objective, kind, and respectful manner, or it can lead to a claim of a “hostile work environment” in our over-the-top litigious society if we choose to be jerks or bullies to our coworkers and team members. How an individual chooses to accept that feedback is their choice and will define their commitment to their professional growth and development.

I can clearly recall having a conversation with a manager in October 2013 around recruitment. Just to give you an idea of why the conversation took place. In every store visit, and every phone call I had with this manager from September through October he spoke of how many hours he’d worked and how the District Manager would never recruit for him. He said he’d have a full day of interviews, hire four or five people and they would either not show up for their first day or quit within the first week. But it was all about him and how unfair this situation was to him. I scheduled a visit to his store and had a conversation with him off the floor after I’d spent about two hours recruiting for him in the center, as the priority was to actually staff the store with people who were passionate about the customer experience. Anyhoo…I asked him a series of questions to gain understanding as to what his challenges were with building a team. Here is a Cliff’s Notes version of the Q&A portion:

Me: How often do you recruit?
SM: Never, I don’t like it
Me: How do you find your candidates?
SM: I call X and they place an ad
Me: So why do you think people are quitting right away or don’t show up at all?
SM: Well, most of them come from out of the area and it’s a far drive, we don’t have a lot of payroll hours to give, and we don’t pay enough
Me: So, let me have the phone number to one of the people who quit right away and see if I can find out what the problem was
SM: Well they lived far, they said, so you don’t have to
Me: Okay – well did you like them?
SM: Yes, they were really great for the two days they worked
Me: Great – let me talk to them and see what I can do.

Following that conversation, we spent about 90 minutes recruiting in the center. Connecting with other Store Managers (which had never been done) in other retail stores and some of their team members. We ended up confirming 5 interviews for sales associates for the following day. I did call the associate who quit and they gave me some valuable information as to why they decided not to work with us. Here was their feedback: “The manager was very negative, they were left alone after the first two hours for at least an hour while the manager sat in the back, the manager was constantly talking about how many hours he had to work and how burned out he was”. And it turned out that person lived only about six miles from the center – it was not a geography issue as I was told. After I’d collected all this information, and we had actual coverage in the store to drive sales, I had follow-up dialogue with the manager in his store. We were having a conversation about the new team and I told him the areas that I could see he was excelling in AND that his biggest developmental areas were recruitment and creating a positive, fun culture for himself and his team. He then argued the point that the shopping center was in an affluent area so no one needed to work, this after we’d been able to staff the store in 72 hours, so it wasn’t his fault the store wasn’t filled and that I was wrong to suggest it was his opportunity area. He was combative and unpleasant through that portion of the conversation. I recommitted to helping him improve his recruitment skills and told him I was glad we were on the right track for the holidays and glad he would finally find some balance after the year he’d had. Once we’d concluded the conversation and I left the store for the day he picked up the phone and called the Director of Stores and the CEO to complain about what I’d said.

That person displayed the classic textbook signs of not being able to take any accountability for their personal performance:

-Enthusiastically blames others
-Combative style
-They deny their faults even when clearly displaying them
-They, generally, aren’t very truthful
-They are not approachable
-They are rigid
-They shut down in the face of conversations around their performance
-They are always the victim, despite their part in the challenge

We all like to think that we are perfect in most ways and we have egos that are easily bruised if we learn otherwise. But in order to grow, take on more responsibility, and be truly effective we need to know where we need to develop. The best thing we can do is be an active listener and take the feedback in the supportive nature that it was delivered in. We have to be open enough to allow for some reflection on the feedback and maybe discover that just a little tweak is needed to turn the opportunity into a strength. Unless you work in a truly broken culture or for a monster – people aren’t coaching you to hurt your feelings or to make themselves feel more powerful. They are trying to help you maximize your potential.

If you recognize that defensiveness is a opportunity competency for you to work on here are some helpful articles for you:

From Fast Company: Thick Skin Thinking: How To Use Negative Feedback To Your Advantage At Work

From PsychologyToday: How To Take Feedback

From Personal Excellence Blog: How To Handle Negative Feedback

From The Muse: Taking Constructive Criticism Like A Champ!

My biggest piece of advice on this topic is that if you identify with this subject and can admit this as a opportunity area – actively solicit feedback on your performance and development frequently. Don’t wait for your boss or colleague to have to address it with you. If you are proactive with asking for feedback, that usually means, that you are in a frame of mind to be open to it and to truly value the words that are spoken. It’s when we become blind to our weaknesses or when our supervisors/peers spring it on us or wait for the (antiquated) annual performance appraisal process, that we are least likely to truly take the information for what it’s worth. Make it a point to have monthly touch bases with your boss about your growth and development if you don’t get this consistently. It will speak volumes about your desire to learn and your professional courage.


Founder and Editor in Chief of Excellence In Retail and 18 year retailer. I am a passionate and creative leader and coach committed to inspiring thought, action, truth-telling, solution-seeking, and dialog about how to maximize talent through identifying and creating a process around critical success factors, workplace culture, signature leadership practices, productivity, profitability, alignment of employees and company vision & values, and workplace happiness inside all retail organizations. I help create healthy, vibrant, high-performing, and highly-productive organizations that are talent magnets and focused on delivering the highest level of customer experience that will differentiate them from competition and result in long-term growth and sustainability.

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