How to Deflect Self-Protective Strategies

October 19, 2018

Earlier this week, Dede Henley, workplace leadership consultant and contributor to Forbes Magazine published an article entitled 10 Self-Protective Strategies That Undo Your Super Power At Work. The article detailed the unconscious “fight or flight” responses that people employ when they get upset in an effort to help them survive the distress. Dubbed “self-protective strategies”, these methods of dealing with an unideal situation tend to get us through an initial unpleasant state, but oftentimes are not the best way to handle a situation.

In our industry we are often faced with situations with both employees and members where these self-protective strategies are evident. Working with people and different personalities also provide us, as managers, with ample opportunity to default to our own self-protective strategy, which can get in the way of our own success. Being aware and knowing how to respond when you or someone with whom you are interacting is employing these self-protective strategies is key to long-term success in both your personal and professional life.

Here are the 10 Self-Protective Strategies as listed by Dede Henley and some industry specific suggestions when managing people or service customers/members:


“I’ll do it Myself”

The “I’ll do it myself” person comes off as the martyr. Their internal dialogue tells them that it’s up to them to get it done or they are the only one who really cares about getting something done right. In the team-oriented hospitality industry, it is important that everyone feels as though they are pulling their own weight, and can rely upon their peers to shoulder some extra burden on busy days or in high-stress situations. As a manager, ensuring both you and your staff are engaging in positive, productive communication is key in order to mitigate a situation in which an employee may default to this self-defense mechanism.


Every club has members or employees who immediately look to place blame when they are upset, or something doesn’t go as expected. This self-protecting behavior makes the person seem difficult to please and criticize quickly. The best way to address this behavior is to remain calm and simply address their expectations and concerns; finding a way to constructively provide a solution.


Do you have an employee who is a shining star in whom you see strong management potential, except for one major hurdle: they are overly hard on themselves or seem to get in their own way at the last minute? Self-sabotage is the strategy of those who obsess over their failings. This may come from a true lack of confidence, or perhaps the idea of continual self-improvement goes a step too far; leading to perfectionism, which can be paralyzing. Either way, an employee who finds they default to self-sabotage is one who needs support, guidance, and empowerment. Perhaps offer this employee additional responsibilities in which you know they will succeed. Success begets success and continued success builds self-esteem. Providing growth opportunities will illustrate to them that he/she is a valuable member of the group. Remember not to promote someone into a position without providing the additional training they may need to be successful. People often fail to their level of training, so be sure you are not expecting more than they have been trained to produce.

Acting Politically: 

Some people are taught not to air dirty laundry in public and end up censoring themselves to the point of being passive. This self-protection strategy is called acting politically and when it is used by members or employees, it can result in a lot of feelings being “swept under the rug in an effort to not ruffle any feathers.” Encouraging your employees to address conflict situations in a private, one-on-one setting can help to overcome acting politically. Listening intently to member feedback will help you to ‘read between the lines’ if they appear upset but are not directly stating so.



People who are cynical have found a way not to be disappointed: they don’t expect anything or believe in much but are often quick to point out failures. Cynicism is a coping mechanism used to ensure that one is never disappointed, but it is not a very productive mindset. You may spot this person who sits on the sidelines and says, “I knew that wasn’t going to work.” If one is frequently thinking that something is going to fail, chances are it probably will. Managing a cynical employee is difficult because that employee can easily bring down the rest of the group and hinder teamwork. It’s imperative to encourage positive self-talk . There is a reason we have the cliché of the bad apple spoiling the bunch. Work hard to keep cynicism from spoiling your team.


Sarcasm is used in an effort to be funny, but the laughter is usually at the expense of another person. The Latin root of the word sarcasm is sarkazein, meaning to speak bitterly or sneer. The literal meaning is "to strip off the flesh", and to some, this is how sarcasm feels. Sarcasm in the workplace can break down a team, cause hurt feelings and create misunderstandings. Sarcastic members/customers come off as disempowering and can make your staff feel as though they are ill equipped to do their jobs. When addressing a member who is resorting to sarcasm in a difficult situation, the best course of action is to speak frankly and work to get to the root of the problem. Then work quickly to solve it or address the issue at hand.


Staying in the intellect and continuing the argument during times of conflict makes it hard to empathize with others, limiting possible resolution. You can recognize this behavior when a person debates or argues every solution offered. When it comes to addressing member/customer concerns, it’s important to get into the mind of the member (especially when they are employing this self-protective strategy!) and clearly understand their desires and expectations. Ask yourself, “How are they feeling?” and try to empathize with their situation. Try to put yourself into their point of view to better understand the situation and not just the intellectual debate or argument they may be using. The most important response to this behavior is to remain calm and not allow oneself to become argumentative.


When one defaults to domination as a protective strategy, he/she uses his/her position and authority to demand that people do what he/she tells them to do. You may come across this protective strategy with your senior employees who feel that they can assert their authority over more junior staff, and this assertion may not always be communicated in a constructive way. If you see this dominating behavior within your team, it is good to remind employees that it does not matter if you have been a part of the staff for 10 years or 10 minutes, everyone is working as a team to get the job done well and deliver a high standard of service to the members. Encourage them to interact with one another in a respectful, positive way.



Talking with other people about how upset you are or what another person has done to cause your frustration in an effort to find others who feel you are ‘right’ in your thoughts or feelings is a coalition- building self-protective strategy. Essentially, it is seeking validation for your thoughts or feelings. This behavior doesn’t actually resolve anything, but can spread misinformation, gossip or negativity in the workplace. This can be especially problematic in a private club environment, where there are many people involved in the club’s leadership: board of directors, committees, and management.  Misinformation or gossip can turn catastrophic if not managed appropriately. The organization and management of private clubs is unique and the nuances of club governance can be intimidating or confusing to some.  While gossip is an issue that is always present, it is one that can easily be addressed by implementing an open-door policy with your member leadership as well as employees.


Physical, mental or emotional withdrawal is a common and convenient self-protective behavior. The problem with this is that the hurt, frustration or conflict can fester and become bigger than it originally was. Sometimes people just need a minute to cool off when a situation gets heated, and they should be allowed to do so. However, once a person removes him/her self from a situation completely without addressing the matter at hand, it can lead to further conflict, misunderstandings or confusion. If you find yourself managing an employee who often takes the latter coping mechanism when a problem arises, chances are you have someone using the withdrawal self-protective strategy. Like “acting politically” the best way to address this strategy is to encourage your employee to address problems or concerns in a constructive and productive manner. Be sure you make them feel comfortable expressing their thoughts and feelings; people often withdraw to avoid confrontation, so keep the conversation positive and productive. Communication is key. Having employees who withdraw every time a difficult situation arises can result in a lot of pent-up feelings and tension on the brink of eruption at any moment.=

In some scenarios, self-protection strategies are necessary for survival, but they aren't necessarily strategies that result in an overarching positive outcome. Take a minute to think about your own self-protecting strategies and how they may be keeping you from thriving in your life and work. Reflect on your team and help them to identify their own self-protecting behaviors. Talk with him/her proactively about alternative actions he/she can take for his/her own personal development and benefit of the team. Use this information when serving your customers/members. By understanding how a self-protecting behavior may be used by your customer, you will have a better chance of resolving a situation or better serving the customer/member as you ‘put yourself in their shoes’ to better understand them.