The Power of the Self-Protective System


The Power of the Self-Protective System

Understanding the emotions behind passive-aggressive behavior in employees

In the previous blog, understanding the emotions behind passive-aggressive behavior in leaders, I talked about one of the key behavioral strategies of the Self-Protective System — passive-aggressive behavior. This blog is a continuation of that article with a focus on passive-aggressive employees.   

Passive-aggressive behaviors are emotionally driven and result in others experiencing strong negative emotions. By someone being too helpful; by withholding information and not saying anything; by agreeing to do something and then not doing it in the agreed upon timelines; by pretending everything is under control and handled when it’s anything but; are very powerful ways of getting one’s needs met in an indirect and underhanded fashion. Often the person at the receiving end of the passive-aggressive behavior looks as though they have the problem because of their emotional reaction to what has or hasn’t happened. The outcome of not dealing with passive aggressive self-protective behaviors can be costly to the organization and to the culture at work.

Here are a few examples of self-protective strategies of employees that often occur at work.   

Faking compliance:  When using this strategy, the employee will agree to tasks and timelines and then take so long to do it that his or her manager regrets giving the employee the task. They frustrate their co-workers and managers when they say they are going to help with something and then forget to show up.  If confronted, this employee casts blame elsewhere, insisting there has been some kind of misunderstanding; will claim to have forgotten what was said; or say that they were given different instructions from a coworker.   

Going over the bosses head:  In this strategy, the employee finds ways to get in front of their manager’s boss when their boss is out of the office. They will think up a task that needs to get done quickly; have work that needs approval before taking the next action; create a crisis that needs to be dealt with or an issue concerning a coworker that they insist cannot wait to be resolved. This makes the employee look good in upper management’s eyes while diminishing their manager’s credibility and authority.   

Defaming their boss:  In this strategy, the employee tries to diminish their manager by constantly complaining or commenting on everything the boss is doing wrong. They gossip or spread rumors that throw a negative light on their boss’s integrity or suggest some workplace romantic intrigue they are involved with. They might even make personal comments about their physical appearance or make fun of some aspect of their boss. No matter how well a boss treats them, the employee complains about how they aren’t appreciated despite the reality of the situation.

Sabotaging coworkers:  This employee will employ actions that undermine the work of a peer. They might give them the wrong information or tell them their boss doesn’t like the way they are doing the work. They might make mistakes that ultimately make their coworker look bad or get in the way of them meeting a timeline. They will lose or misplace important files or forget to back up their document on the computer, losing valuable work and time. When confronted, they might suggest that it was unfair to expect so much of them in the first place and it isn’t their fault that the project got derailed because someone else used poor judgment. 

Sitting on the fence:  This employee knows that there are problems and issues that need to be addressed and will comment and discuss them in private to coworkers, and not bring them up at team meetings or to their boss. While they don’t make waves, they sit waiting for the problem to get bigger and more disruptive. Once their manager hears of the issue, they might say something like “I didn’t think it was my place to say anything” or “Dealing with this issue is above my pay grade.”

After a lifetime of using self-protective strategies instead of asserting themselves and communicating directly, this employee’s behavior is difficult to change. If they change, they have to bear feeling powerless, angry, or frightened. However, it is critical that the employee that uses passive-aggressive strategies be dealt with as they can diminish the performance of their team, coworkers and their managers. 

The Work Styles Reports for each of the eight Striving Styles provide insight into each of their Self-Protective Systems. For more information about how to self-actualize as an employee, visit

Anne Dranitsaris Ph.D.



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