Topic: Employee Burnout and Defensive Communication

Author(s), Title and Publication

Becker, J. H., Halbesleben, J. B., & O’Hair, H. (2005). Defensive Communication and Burnout in the Workplace: The Mediating Role of Leader–Member Exchange. Communication Research Reports, 22(2), 143-150.


This study used leader-member exchange (LMX) theory, which suggests that leaders develop different relationships with employees via communication, to explore linkages between employee burnout (exhaustion and cynicism) and defensive communication in performance appraisal settings. Defensive communication refers to a self-perceived flaw (or failure) that an individual refuses to admit to another and an attack on that flaw by another. The mediating effect of supervisor-subordinate relationships or perceived supervisor support (contribution, loyalty, affect, and professional respect) also was examined.

A survey of 81 employees at a federal fire department found a strong link between defensive communication and burnout. A higher level of defensive communication was associated with a lower quality of LMX, which in turn lead to higher levels of employee burnout. The researchers also found that supervisors can reduce defensive communication in performance reviews, and thereby burnout, by providing honest and constructive feedback to employees, enhancing their skills and strengths, and developing goal-setting strategies, rather than dwelling on an employee’s past behaviors or problems.

Implications for Practice

To reduce employee burnout, supervisors might focus on better understanding and managing defensive communication. Practitioners can assist by training supervisors to engage in supportive communication and creating opportunities for greater supervisor-employee interactions.

Location of Article

The article is available online at:

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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