The Power of the Self-Protective System


The Power of the Self-Protective System

Understanding the emotions behind passive-aggressive behavior in leaders.

In my recent blog posts on Understanding Defensive Behavior, I talked about what we call the Self-Protective System of the brain or our emotional and instinctual brains. This Systems agenda is to ensure our survival by reacting to perceived threats in an instinctual or emotional fashion — fight, flight, freeze, befriend, etc. While we are able to use reason and plan our responses, we can get stuck in automatic self-protective patterns of behavior that limit our lives and get in the way of healthy relationships. These behaviors are not learned, but are hard-wired into the fabric of our brain’s physical organization and are only concerned with the preservation of our self, self-image or self-concept.  

Self-protective behavior is often the only way a person has to make them self feel that they have any power or control over what is going on. One of the ways that many people behave from their SP System is doing and saying nothing at all when others need them to. There is great power in not doing something that someone else needs you to do. We generally call these behaviors passive-aggressive because they are emotionally driven and result in people, other than the one who is being passive aggressive, feeling helpless, frustrated or angry. Doing nothing is a very powerful way of feeling in control even though it doesn’t really resolve issues or get us what we want.

Leaders are often perceived as having power and authority and while they do have position power, they don’t always “feel” in control or know what to do about interpersonal issues at work that make them anxious or threatened. Instead, they resort to passive aggressive self-protective behaviors that can be costly to the organization and to the culture at work.

Here are just a few examples of self-protective strategies that leaders often use when they don’t deal with their employees and their emotions head on:  

Not responding to an employee’s request for information or to meet. A leader may withhold information or say they are too busy to meet leaving the employee stranded and unable to achieve their timelines. The leader might also criticize the employee for not getting their work done. 

Not giving positive feedback. Withholding praise or positive feedback is a way of controlling the way an employee feels about himself or herself. It leaves them unsure about how they are doing in their job. This leaves them feeling insecure and inadequate. 

Not attending meetings or arriving late. When leaders feel threatened by an employee, they find ways to devalue them. For example, they may decide to not attend a meeting their employee needs them at causing the employees work to be delayed. On the other hand, they might arrive late, forcing everyone to wait for them. 

Sounding like they agree or assent to a request.  Responding to an idea an employee has by saying “That sounds like a good idea” or “Your suggestion has a lot of merit” can cause an employee to move to action only to be told later that they didn’t agree to anything.  They may be berated for doing something without authority.

Freezing out the employee. A leader can decide to use the silent treatment and leave employee out in the cold. They might ignore them in meetings or not acknowledge them when passing in the hall. A leader can make the workplace a miserable place to be when they deny the employee any type of interaction or involvement. 

Self-protective behaviors are often subtle and certainly deniable as some of them are hard to prove or confront.  Leaders who practice these types of tactics need to recognize that they are a destructive force at work and explore the fears or other emotions that are causing them to be self-protective.  

The Leadership Style 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 a leader, visit

Anne Dranitsaris Ph.D.