We all bring our egos to work, and along with our egos comes the need to protect them. The workplace is fraught with danger to our sense of self. Critical feedback, abrupt colleagues and micromanaging bosses can all take a toll.
So how do we deal with these psychological minefields? We use our psychological armour like stress management, directing anxiety towards something productive and so on.
Workers use their psychological armour to get through tough days all the time
We use what’s called defense mechanisms, which guard against having to face our unpleasant thoughts, feelings or behaviours. Defense mechanisms can provide both short-term and long-term relief for a bruised or threatened egos.
So, despite what we might think when we hear about them, defense mechanisms aren’t bad by definition. Everyone uses them and some are more effective than others. Effective defense mechanisms can actually help workers gain perspective, maintain their self esteem, channel impulses appropriately and speak up for themselves.
But, some kinds of defense mechanisms get workers into trouble….
Denial can be problematic. When an employee or manager refuses to accept a fact about themselves or their behaviour, it can cause serious problems. Even with feedback, they seem to act like it never happened.
Once, I met with a worker whose job was affected by his alcoholism. He was offered treatment by his employer but refused to recognize there was even an issue. He decided to resign rather than face the problem.
What about workers who have temper tantrums at work? What defense mechanism is at play in this scenario.
Employees may encounter thoughts or feelings they have trouble expressing, so instead of saying how they feel and dealing with it appropriately they’ll Act Out. A manager I worked with who threw things when staff told him bad news noticed that people stopped coming to him with information as a result.
Other kinds of defense mechanisms are used all the time
They might deal with stress using “displacement” by directing negativity at others. If they’re angry at the boss and unable to express it they might take it out on the family, for instance.
Sometimes you’ll see “intellectualization” used at work, which is when a worker insists on analyzing a situation to death, rather than make a decision. Analysis paralysis can be a product of intellectualization. A decision-maker actually knows the right direction but spends excessive amounts of time pouring over minute details. It’s actually a way of avoiding fear when making an important decision by putting the decision off for as long as possible, or leaning on others for cover.
Defense mechanisms also kick in when we make mistakes
Rather than apologize, we try to undo the mistake. Sometimes when we are shown our mistake, we talk about all the factors that went into how the error was made. It sounds like excuses but it’s called “undoing”.
We mistakenly believe if we explain ad-nauseaum how the error was made, we can undo the mistake.
Many of these defense mechanisms get in the way of performance, some defense mechanisms can help get the job done
“Sublimation” is a great one. It’s when we we channel our unacceptable impulses into something productive. Workers who manage stress well, often use workouts to handle their feelings. You’ll see humour used as well. Making light of situations or oneself de-intensifies situations. Employees also use visualization to deal with set-backs. I worked with a socially anxious worker who imagined scenarios in which she had successful conversations at networking events. It prepared her and decreased her anxiety.
What defense mechanisms are the best ones to use at work?
Everyone has weaknesses and workers have to handle them. One way is to collaborate with colleagues who are strong in your weak areas. I worked with a Co-ordinator who was quick to recognize her team-mate’s strengths and she readily acknowledged she was very practical herself. She gets things done. But, her team mate was the better planner. Together they made a great team and the Co-ordinator didn’t feel inferior. Her colleague accentuated her strength area and her colleague felt she could excel and not worry.
Assertiveness is another effective defense mechanism. Rather than use Denial, Acting Out, Displacement or Intellectualization, worker’s face what they think and feel and ask for what they need appropriately.
Employers can help staff use their defense mechanisms effectively
If an employee is acting out help them talk about what they’re thinking or feeling. This helps them plan a more appropriate response. Developing approachable and accessible supervisors ensures employees aren’t carrying negativity home. Assertiveness training helps staff learn how to ask for what they need appropriately and if workers tend to overuse intellectualization, empathy helps to reduce it.
Noticing if workers feel afraid or embarrassed will provide a way to solve problems without requiring workers to wear too much psychological armour.
To hear the full interview, listen below: