The 8 Types of Defensive Behavior in the Workplace

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Why does defensive behavior in the workplace occur? What are the major types of defensive behaviors?

Defensive behavior in the workplace happens when the perception of being threatened pushes someone to develop habits and mechanisms to protect themselves. Perfectionism, suppression of authenticity, negative vices, and the tendency to avoid difficult situations are all common defensive behaviors.

Read on to discover the types of defensive behavior in the workplace.

Defensive Behaviors in the Workplace

Often, leaders try to engineer vulnerability out of their work cultures because they believe that it will make their team members more efficient and less susceptible to emotions. In fact, when organization members aren’t given the opportunity to face their vulnerability and think through their emotions, they allow their ego to take control and become more susceptible to emotional reactivity. The ego will engender defensive behavior in the workplace in an attempt to protect themselves from being bruised by negative emotions such as embarrassment or shame.

Leaders and their team members usually resort to one or several of 8 types of defensive behavior in the workplace—in this chapter, we’ll walk through how these behaviors present themselves, how they hold back your team, and how brave leaders take steps to discourage them and solve their sources.

Defense 1: Numbing Difficult Feelings

When prevented from engaging with negative emotions, team members may escape their feelings with numbing agents such as drinking, shopping, over-scheduling, gambling, and so on. Besides the obvious risk of addiction, this threatens their mental health because it’s not possible to choose which emotions are numbed. Positive emotions are numbed along with the negative. 

Leaders can combat this type of defensive behavior in the workplace by regularly checking in with their emotional needs and finding healthy outlets for negative emotions, and teaching their team members how to do the same. This can be taught as a simple shift in thinking: rather than, “How can I make these feelings go away?” have your team members try, “What is the source of how I’m feeling?” This shift replaces the need for a numbing vice with the choice of an appropriate comfort. For example, a team member might feel angry and indulge in a bottle of wine to cope. But if she were to explore the source of the feelings—she’s feeling irritable at the end of a hard day and needs some calming alone time—she can choose a more comforting outlet like putting on some favorite music and cooking a nutritious meal. 

Defense 2: Avoiding Difficult and Awkward Situations

People tend to put off difficult or awkward situations—such as asking for a favor or facing a conflict—because the vulnerability of these situations is uncomfortable. It might feel easier to avoid the discomfort, but in the end, this avoidance is mentally exhausting and a waste of time. After all the time and energy spent, the difficult situation still needs to be dealt with.

Brave leaders combat this type of defensive behavior in the workplace by showing their team members how to mentally prepare themselves to directly face vulnerable situations. This simply involves taking a moment to ask yourself: “What feelings are driving me to avoidance? What can I control? What do I need to accept is out of my control?” Walking through these questions provides clarity about the situation—the resulting sense of calm, rather than anxiety, makes the situation easier to face. Without this mental preparation, they’ll continue practicing avoidance, but this only leaves them prone to being caught by the situation when they’re emotionally and mentally unprepared for it.

Defense 3: Overcompensating to Prove Worth

Team members who feel insecure about their value or place within your organization will often overcompensate to prove their worth. Overcompensation can present as the need to be right, or the pursuit of validation rather than self-improvement. Often, overcompensating team members slow down their colleagues by pushing themselves into projects where they’re not needed or their skillset isn’t helpful. 

Brave leaders combat this type of defensive behavior in the workplace by giving positive feedback to their team members and reminding them of what particular value they bring to the organization. When team members feel secure about their worth, they focus on improving within their unique skill set rather than hustling for everyone’s attention and validation.

Defense 4: Attaching Self-Worth to Productivity

Team members insecure with their inherent value might attach their self-worth to their productivity. They’re too hard-working, never taking a break for anything they deem “unproductive,” such as vacations or hobbies. This over-productivity is often damaging—our brains require downtime in order to learn new things, exercise creativity and innovation, and simply rest. If a team member is never “off,” she’s putting herself at very high risk for depression, anxiety, or burnout. Furthermore, over-productive attitudes are contagious among colleagues and spur everyone to overwork themselves—leaving you with a team of burnt-out, undercreative people.

Brave leaders combat this type of defensive behavior in the workplace by setting healthy boundaries among their team members. Start this process by setting boundaries for yourself, such as, “I won’t reply to emails on the weekend.” These boundaries should be extended to your team members—if you don’t want to receive weekend emails, you shouldn’t be sending them weekend emails. Once you’ve demonstrated your commitment to your boundaries, encourage your team members to make their own. 

If you have team members who brag about exhaustion, or working through their time off, be careful not to reward them—this can be obvious, as with praise for hard work, or subtle, as with engaging with their overproductivity and allowing them to work during their time off. Instead, talk to these team members and emphasize your expectation that they prioritize downtime. Explain why downtime is important to them and the organization as a whole, and help them set healthy boundaries. 

Defense 5: Suppressing Authenticity to Fit In

In a work culture based on the status quo and “fitting in,” team members might feel that they need to suppress their authentic selves in order to be respected and heard. Naturally, this calls into question the authenticity of their colleagues—who are likely also suppressing their authentic selves—and diminishes trust. Furthermore, a lack of diversity in an organization prevents the discovery of the new perspectives and ideas essential to a thriving innovative culture.

Brave leaders combat this type of defensive behavior in the workplace by committing themselves to the inclusion of diverse perspectives. You can start by becoming more aware of your privilege and biases. Ask yourself: “Does everyone on my team look like me? Does everyone have the same background? Is there anyone I overlook in meetings because they’re not the same as everyone else?”

This line of questioning can be tough. It’s hard to see what prejudices you might be unconsciously holding, but you need to rely on your commitment to brave leadership to acknowledge and work against these blind spots. If you find that there are team members whose perspectives and ideas you favor, spend time recognizing the efforts and value of those you tend to overlook.

Defense 6: Looking for Self-Worth Externally

Team members with no sense of self-worth often try to fill the space with power or validation by taking credit for work or ideas that aren’t theirs, comparing themselves to others, and needing to be right all the time. These behaviors inhibit innovation and learning, confidence-building, and the ability to recover from setbacks. 

Brave leaders combat this type of defensive behavior in the workplace by reminding those team members displaying a lack of self-worth of the unique value they bring to the organization. If you don’t address the self-worth problem directly, your team member will continue holding themselves—and the organization—back by avoiding any risk of failure and trying to prove that they’re never wrong and better than everyone else.

Defense 7: Perfectionism 

Team members resort to perfectionism to protect themselves from the embarrassment and shame that come from experiencing failure, being criticized, or not living up to the expectations of others. Perfectionism prevents team members from taking on challenges and risks that foster progress and learning, which are crucial to an innovative culture.

Perfectionism is an ongoing cycle that worsens over time—they try to be perfect, inevitably fail, and conclude that it was because they weren’t perfect enough. As the cycle continues and failures inevitably pile up, the team member takes smaller and smaller risks so that they can achieve perfection every time.

Brave leaders combat this type of defensive behavior in the workplace by having open and honest conversations with their teams about the drawbacks of perfectionism, and present the idea of healthy striving. Perfectionism is external and focuses on the perceptions of others—it looks like, “What will people think of me and my work?” On the contrary, healthy striving is internal and focuses on self-improvement—it looks like, “How can I be better?”

Defense 8: Needing to Be Right 

Insecure team members might feel that their value lies in being right all the time. This presents as refusal to admit mistakes, rejection of others’ answers, and making up answers instead of saying, “I don’t know.” This behavior pulls down everyone who needs to work with the always-right team member, for several reasons. Firstly, they’re likely to cover up their mistakes, which creates distrust and misinformation. Secondly, their “my way is the only way” mindset leads to poor, ego-based decision making. And thirdly, team members who need to be right are usually in constant conflict with anyone who disagrees with them. 

As a leader, it’s possible that you’re exacerbating this problem by valuing certain people as “always right,” which takes away the power of other, less tenured people to contribute diverse ideas. Imagine that someone who’s an expert in their field joins your company. Six months in, she has yet to contribute to a single meeting because your company’s culture dictates that only the ideas and opinions of long-term leaders are valued. You’ve missed out on valuable insight and discussion by creating a culture that discredits new perspectives.  

Brave leaders combat this type of defensive behavior in the workplace by having an honest conversation with the always-right team member about their issue, and offering suggestions for improvement. For example, you could say, “I appreciate that you always have answers to problems, but I think you should work on asking good questions as well. Developing curiosity and thinking critically is what will help you thrive on this team.”

Furthermore, you should recognize team members who are committed to learning—they ask questions often and admit when they don’t have an immediate answer. By recognizing these behaviors, you can demonstrate to your team that there’s no value in always being right, but rather in continued effort to learn to do things right.

How to Deal With Defensive Behaviors in the Workplace

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  • A breakdown of the four courage-building skills that make up brave leadership
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Joseph Adebisi

Joseph has had a lifelong obsession with reading and acquiring new knowledge. He reads and writes for a living, and reads some more when he is supposedly taking a break from work. The first literature he read as a kid were Shakespeare's plays. Not surprisingly, he barely understood any of it. His favorite fiction authors are Tom Clancy, Ted Bell, and John Grisham. His preferred non-fiction genres are history, philosophy, business & economics, and instructional guides.

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