When we come to work, we bring our hard skills, like data crunching and Photoshop; we bring our soft skills training like negotiation and leadership. Along with the qualities we find on a CV, we bring behaviors to the workplace. Defense mechanisms is one kind of behavior that individuals use to create a barrier between themselves and stressful events, actions, or thoughts. They use defense mechanisms as a way to navigate around emotional threats or feelings.
The famed, Austrian psychologist, Sigmund Freud, proposed the first theory on this type of behavior. He viewed personality as the merging of three aspects of a person: the id, the ego, and the super ego. Like other kinds of psychological behaviors, defense mechanisms are not a conscious decision. You may be enacting a few strategies without even realizing it.
Don’t worry. Having defense mechanisms are normal. They’re how you and everyone you know understands and handles the world. That’s why it’s imperative to understand more about them. Your coworkers, clients, and fresh hires have their own set of defensive behaviors.
Take a few moments to learn more. Learning how to recognize them in yourself and the people around you could assist in tailoring your communication style.
You may be wondering how you or your teammates struggle to reach “do-able” things, like register your new apartment move or answer your work emails within 24 hours. These may seem simple and mundane. However if a defense mechanism is attached to certain actions, even small actions become a mountain to climb. It may be because certain actions, situations, or people trigger within us unpleasant feelings. We may associate our talkative colleague with our talkative---and annoying---neighbor. Or we may misinterpret a critique as an attack---as it sounds familiar to what a caregiver used to say. When an emotional string has been touched, we may spiral into feelings of anxiety, anger, or shame.
These reactions become habitual, forming into recurring defense mechanisms. Soon, they become part of how we interact with ourselves and the world around. We become encoded with these as thought patterns that we have a difficult time trusting alternative reasons for a comment or situation.
Present circumstances or people that remind us of unpleasant past experiences become painful; the discomfort stems from unconsciously remembering we were unable to properly address those events in the past. It makes us interpret the present as a threat.
At the workplace, within talent management, hiring and recruiting, or anywhere working with people, identifying your own behaviors is the first step. Then, you’ll be more aware of others behavioral habits. Once defense mechanisms are identified within the workplace and with coworkers, you’ll be able to consciously engage with them. It will help you understand which situations may be emotionally triggering for you or others. It will help you update your own beliefs and attitudes, paving the way for growth.
Here are 10 common defense mechanisms
Projection is the defense mechanism where individuals subconsciously project undesirable feelings or emotions onto someone else, rather than admitting to or dealing with the unwanted feelings. You may have discomforting thoughts or feelings about another person. You may take these feelings and assume the person is causing you these feelings.
You may experience this around when you’re conducting a job interviewing; their resume may intimidate you. Instead of accepting you feel intimidated or inadequate, you convince yourself they’re arrogant or that they think less of you.
Denial is amongst one of the most common defense mechanisms. This occurs when reality or facts are not accepted by an individual. Instead they choose to block out events that are unpleasant or emotionally roiling. This is how they avoid painful circumstances.
You may see this amongst your executive team who keep spending money on inconsequential details rather than addressing the big problems with the product. It could also be your neighbor who is in denial that their cat is not coming back. The answer is obvious to everyone around them, but they refuse to acknowledge the facts.
Repression stems from the unconscious behavior to forget painful memories, thoughts, or experiences. These events can be so incredibly upsetting that they may even remain hidden from your conscious mind. Memories won’t necessarily vanish, but the emotional reaction remains to certain people or situations. This inevitably ends up influencing how they react in circumstances that feel emotionally similar.
This one may be harder to detect as repression results from pushing down feelings. However when an employee does not share something that was obviously very emotionally triggering but instead acts like nothing happened, this could be one giveaway.
Displacement is when strong emotions are directed towards a person or object that has nothing to do with a situation. The object of these emotions are usually non-threatening. This gives the person the ability to project their emotions towards someone or something that has little defense.
Seeing an example of this in the workplace could be as simple as seeing your boss be talked down to by their boss---and then watching your boss take out their frustration on their assistant by making them work longer hours or assigning an impossible task.
When regression occurs, individuals may escape to an earlier stage of their psychological development to self-soothe. They may do this when they feel stressed or worried. In essence, individuals revert to a point in their development when they felt safer and when stress was nonexistent, or when an all-powerful parent or another adult would have rescued them.
You may witness this with an injured child, who quickly begins sucking their thumb to ease the pain. But regression is a defense mechanism that adults enact as well. Insecurity, fear, and anger can cause an adult to regress. At work, they may be engaging in habits like baby talk, verbally abusing employees, whining, being mute, or rocking back and forth.
Rationalization occurs when people feel they’re explaining their petty behaviors based on “facts”. This permits them to feel fine with the decisions they’ve made, even though at an unconscious level, they know they’re in the wrong.
This may show up in the workplace when a coworker begins explaining how they voted for one political candidate that wants higher, local taxes but then moves to a lower tax city. Or it may be the coworker who didn’t perform well on a professional certificate test very well, but say they didn’t have enough time to study.
Sublimation is a healthy mechanism when intermediating with a stressful event or situation. The basic meaning of the word is "to change form." Individuals who employ this strategy channel their strong feelings and emotions into an object or activity that is safe.
Everyone in the workplace possesses some type of desire that may be socially unacceptable or problematic. But instead of firing an employee on a bad day, these individuals use that energy to go for a run or create music after work.
This type of defense mechanism occurs when a person actually knows how they feel, but they choose to act in the opposite way, against their instincts.
You may see this in a coworker who just may have gotten laid off due to the recent COVID-19 pandemic, but instead of showing sadness or disappointment, they may choose to be incredibly perky about it. They may be uncharacteristically humorous or laissez faire about being let go. Or it may show up when you notice a coworker speaking incredibly friendly with another employee you know they loathe.
Compartmentalization comes into play when a person separates individual parts of their life as a means to protect it. It can be used to avoid the anxiety or confusion when different parts of their life may cause contradictory values or emotions.
You may see this within a work colleague: they’re extremely strict and not particularly affable managers when managing employees, but at the company picnic you notice how sensitive and nurturing they are with their kids. This may be due to how they feel they need to be one person at work and another at home.
When faced with an anxiety-inducing situation, an individual may choose to remove all the emotion from it. Instead they focus on the quantitative facts. They prefer not to deal with the “mess” of understanding and managing their emotional response.
You may witness this when an employee learns their hours are being reduced to part-time. Instead of taking a moment to feel upset, they immediately go into problem-solving mode, creating spreadsheets about what they’ll be doing with their time and looking for other jobs.
Our defensive mechanisms help us resolve a particular challenge in the present. It diverts our attention from the emotional pain we’re in. But strategies, like sublimation, can be healthy ways to channel those strong emotions in the workplace. Perhaps that’s why organizations and business leaders should look into gym memberships or other outlets for employees to combat work-related stress. By understanding our defense mechanisms better, we’re able to see and understand our colleagues better, improving communication and culture.