Recognizing Defensive Behaviors

Understanding the reasoning behind certain actions – why people act as they do – can help you deal effectively with people when they seem completely irrational to you. All behavior is designed to satisfy some need, and even unproductive behavior in the workplace usually arises from some unmet, internal personal need. With physical needs, it is easy to see how difficult it can be for people to sustain satisfaction of needs.

The satisfaction of psychological needs is just as important but frequently more difficult. A series of life experiences often contributes to personal problems, making them more complex. People usually first try to satisfy needs by direct action. They work hard to appear successful, exercise to look stronger and more confident, or read books to increase knowledge. For most people, the direct approach works.

Some individuals, however, grew up with so many unsatisfied needs that they now feel generally inferior, guilty, or unworthy. A negative self-image makes the need for self-esteem extremely difficult to satisfy. A direct approach is usually only temporary and insufficient. As a result, people with low self-esteem build defenses.

Some of the most common defenses are easy to recognize. Learning to recognize defenses will help you refer people for help to find alternative ways of satisfying their needs. As you direct employees to resources for addressing their problems, you not only help them improve their quality of life, but you also prevent defensive behavior in the workplace. Recognizing these defensive behaviors helps you know how to best respond:

Aggression. An aggressive person strikes out in an attempt – often subconscious – to destroy the source of frustration. Aggression is a sign of inner fear – not bravery. Because in our society an actual physical release of hostility is generally unacceptable behavior, people may resort instead to gossip, slander, or ridicule as a means of venting hostility in a more socially acceptable fashion. Regard any new surge in aggressive behavior or attitudes as a warning of underlying problems. Using the “tell me about it” method, confront the behavior or negative attitudes.

Daydreaming. In spite of adequate training and above average ability, some people persist in escaping from the drab world of reality into a dream world where life is a bed of roses. Team members who persistently daydream rather than work are exhibiting behavior more characteristic of adolescence than of adulthood. You can often cure daydreaming by helping individuals learn to set short-term goals and gradually establish a pattern of success.

Repression. Repression protects the self-image by rejecting thoughts that are unpleasant or would cause guilt or shame. Some repression may be positive, but an overdose results in intense fears and debilitating feelings of inferiority. Some repressed experiences produce feelings of guilt expressed through self-criticism – or even an apparent desire to provoke punishment. Because they desire to think well of themselves, people with severely repressed feelings attempt to bring suffering upon themselves to atone for their imagined shortcomings. Help team members exhibiting excess guilt, inferiority, or negativism to begin believing in themselves more. Give praise for specific successes whenever possible.

Rationalization. Rationalizers explain failure by making excuses. Why is production down? The raw materials were bad. Why were they not promoted? It was strictly favoritism! Rationalization is an attempt to boost the self-image by “lying to oneself.” Rationalizers must learn to admit their faults and overcome them. A good system of feedback – both positive and corrective – helps to establish a climate in which team members feel secure enough to acknowledge weaknesses and to develop a plan for growth.

Compartmentalization. Compartmentalizing is a way of controlling anxiety and guilt feelings by separating contradictory ideas in the conscious mind. Employees who firmly believe it is wrong to steal might use compartmentalization to justify carrying off company property to make up for salaries they believe are too low. Reasoning with compartmentalizers is wasted effort. But appealing to their emotions will bolster their egos and more likely nurture a commitment to desired behavior.

Following these principles will help you become sensitive to defensiveness and turn it into cooperation:

  • Recognize defensiveness for what it is, and refrain from becoming defensive in turn.
  • Whenever possible, reduce the perceived threat and help the team member feel self-approval and self-respect.
  • Gain acceptance for your ideas by appealing to an employee’s desire or need for satisfaction.
  • Demonstrate subtly that seeing things in a more positive way is advantageous to the employee.
  • Create an atmosphere of security, understanding, and success rather than constant threat, negativism, and failure.


Leadership Management® Institute
Reprinted with permission
Strategic Essentials is a Managing Partner for Leadership Management® International, Inc.

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