Many of us have developed mechanisms to stop us from feeling vulnerable, being wrong, or to cope with stress. However, these self-protective behaviours can have negative impacts on our working relationships and ability to deliver outcomes so it’s important to understand and address them.
- Self-protection can lead to behaviours that are destructive for team dynamics.
- It’s a common blindspot and takes work to change our behaviours.
- Working with colleagues that are self-protecting takes compassion and patience.
When it comes to interpersonal behaviours, especially in the workplace, one of the biggest blind spots many of us have is behaving in a way that’s driven by self-protection. This often manifests as justification or defensiveness to deflect responsibility.
To some degree, it’s normal for us to put on our armour for work every day; a natural response designed to protect ourselves from our fears and vulnerabilities of being wrong or caught unprepared.
Where it can become more acute is when we’re exhausted and have low capacity to deal with stress and overwhelm. When we’re operating on low capacity, we may not have the energy or capacity to deal with yet another problem or take offence at a colleagues tone on an email. When we feel this way, we also run the risk of over personalising situations which stops us being able to think objectively.
Most people have experienced these stress triggers at one time or another, and could probably easily spot these behaviours play out with colleagues. However, recognising these behaviours in ourselves takes self awareness and perspective. When we’re operating in overwhelm, it can be harder to rein in our protective instincts.
Whether the self-protection behaviours are due to our engrained beliefs and patterns or it’s in response to a feeling psychologically unsafe in your environment, if they are not acknowledged or addressed, they can be disruptive and even destructive to workplace relationships and create friction. There can be an enormous benefit taking steps to address this behaviour in yourself, as well as develop the skills to recognise and respond to it in others.
The impact of self-protection in the workplace
When people are stuck in a self-protection cycle in the workplace, they can begin to display negative behaviour, becoming more difficult to work with leading to tension and friction with interactions. For example, when an incident occurs, a coworkers response might be to be deny, deflect or diminish that they were responsible. To their peers, managers or team, this may leave them feeling that the conversation has been shut down or that they’re now at a loss as to how to resolve the situation.
Self-protection can also manifest as needing to be right, as a way to not appear stupid. People who are self-protecting might always seem to have an answer and refuse to discuss other options.
These behaviours have consequences, including hampering a person’s ability to be curious and to learn. It also makes it hard to truly connect with the people working around them – because if someone is defensive all the time, colleagues will find a way to work around them as working with them is just too hard.
Ultimately, if people don’t have the ability or authority to address someone else’s behaviour, or we don’t address it in ourselves, then it will break down team dynamics. As this one study shows, defensive communication is directly linked to poorer relationships between leaders and people, leading to increased burnout.
A compassionate attitude to self-protection
The first stage of addressing self-protection in the workplace is being able to recognise the behaviour in the moment and then learning how to respond in situations.
If you work with someone who you think might be behaving in a way that’s self-protecting, then the first thing to do is to exercise compassion. The chances are, they’re not aware of how they are coming across and we often have little insight into what they may be dealing with or their past experiences which can shape their behaviour. People’s behaviour and how they respond to situations is more about their own fear and needs than it is about the people around them – so never take it personally.
Instead of directly calling out someone’s behaviour in the moment can often lead to more of the same, being defensive about being defensive, another approach can be to use questions to disrupt their defensive response and enable further conversation and exploring solutions. Imagine a situation where a complaint has been made by another team that information has not be shared by one of your colleagues and you’ve approached them to ask about it:
- If they use absolute language, such as “they always claim we don’t tell them enough” ask: “I didn’t realise that, can you give me an example?”
- If they deny, such as “that’s not true” respond with: “Why do you think they would have that perspective then?”
- If they diminish, with “that’s happened once” say to them: “Well it has happened once, how can we make sure we don’t get here again?”
- If they deflect, with “that was someone else’s job” ask: “Okay, how do make sure the person responsible knows what their meant to do?”
Recognising your own self-protection mechanisms
Meanwhile, identifying your own self-protective behaviour is a notoriously difficult thing to do.
The best place to start is reflecting on your working relationships, where friction is present? What is the internal story you are telling yourself about the situation? Is there evidence of that to make it true? Or could there be another perspective that would be more productive?
Also reflect on the feedback you’ve had from others, has it been suggested you need to communicate better when there are problems or to be more open to new ideas? If you’ve heard the same message from more than one person, then it may be worth asking someone you trust to identify what the common situation or feeling present that leads you to become self protective.
If you think you might be self-protecting, remember it’s a common human reaction when we fear being vulnerable or we’re looking for our needs to be met. Self-protective behaviours can be very deep-seated, largely because they are shaped by our own past and experiences. There’s no one right way to approach it, and the self work often takes time and support. As Brene Brown writes, these behaviours can come from shame and even trauma. Also, being in a toxic work environment – both now and in the past – can heighten the long-held beliefs we hold.
Some ways to get started on improving are:
- As Brene Brown says, try shifting from a mindset of always having to be right, to an always learning or beginners mindset.
- Practice not always having the answer, even if you think you do. Instead stay silent and then ask questions to understand more.
- Train yourself to recognise when the frustration or fear shows up. From there, you can start to identify the root cause of where these behaviours are coming from.
- Seek out help to talk through what is underlying the need for armour.
Self-protection in ourselves can have a tremendous impact on our wellbeing, relationships and our reputation impacting our career trajectory. Repeated self protection behaviours in team members if left unaddressed, can breakdown trust within the team, the team culture and ultimately limits what is possible.