The Achilles Heel of Development

The Achilles Heel of Development: Defensive Exclusion

We’ve all witnessed it, the way we preemptively exclude assertion of certain affectively cued thoughts, concerns, and actions from our repertoire out of fear and anxiety. We’re experiencing something that makes us uncomfortable. Things are left unsaid, issues unexplored. The pent-up frustration caused by excluding what we truly experience can generate other unrelated, inchoate, aggressive emotions, and we may say things we later regret. As a result, our communications are incomplete and inaccurate.

Image by Matt Fowler

It becomes easier to suppress expression and even full awareness of such experience. As you will see, this truly is a prime example of “throwing the baby out with the bath water.” Unfortunately, typical developmental strategies—at the individual, group, and organizational levels—don’t get at the heart of this issue. Therefore, whole regions of concern become cordoned off like a minefield. And until we face imminent threats to our survival as a firm, we are unlikely to enter that territory.

Some may be thinking that this sounds too psychological for the workplace. I assure you, nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, it’s because of our concerns about how we are viewed, and how our actions project credibility and cause others to appraise our performance that our inhibitions are even more heightened at work than in other arenas of life. Perhaps, at this point, what would be most helpful is an illustration of what this phenomenon looks like in a real-world scenario.

“Enough Debate, Time to Act”

A divisional leadership team gathers around the boardroom table. They meet regularly, once or twice a week, for operational updates and to coordinate on key sales initiatives. The president’s preference is to keep these meetings brief (30 minutes) and on point, especially since they have found themselves falling behind on revenue and expenses. The president is all about execution: “Everybody has a job to do. You know your accountabilities, so I expect us to be spending most of our time going after those priorities.”

Today the team[i] faces an important decision. It concerns formulating a message, rationale, and action plan for implementing pricing increases. The president insists that it must be resolved: “We’ve been discussing this for too long; it’s now time to act in time to affect 2016 performance.” The SVP of sales and the CFO had a few heated exchanges shortly after this idea was proposed by marketing. But now the president is feeling pressure from Corporate. The mood is tense. Everyone has something at stake.

The elephant in the room, as far as some are concerned, is that the president is not inclined to meet and interact with his team in a more strategic style of discussion and deliberation. Part of the problem is that such meetings usually require more than 30 minutes, and they involve more back-and-forth dialogue and inquiry to fully air the issues, consider implications, and allow time for working through thorny problems. That’s just not how the president naturally functions—it makes him uncomfortable.

He’s been successful up to this point because of his tactical orientation and action bias. He was the youngest ever to be appointed to a GM role and to be promoted to divisional president. Those on his team are mostly people who “came up” with him and did so by accommodating his style and methods. They learned to be selective and measured in challenging him. His reactions can be rather forceful, and now that his results are disappointing—a first—he seems all the more irascible.

The SVP of Sales is a newer member of the team. He was hired about nine months earlier, after several quarters of shortfalls in sales, particularly in large accounts. He believes that the pricing issues are real and that some increases make sense, but also believes that implementation needs to be approached more thoughtfully. Reactions in the market—by segment and product—are likely to vary a good deal. But he’s already seen as “too theoretical” by the president and his loyal CFO.

Where is the Defensive Exclusion in this Situation?

My answer to this question is illustrative and based upon experience with many individual executives, management teams, and organizations. I should reiterate that this phenomenon is common, natural. It’s a behavioral artifact of human development, the accommodations we make early in life in exchange for achieving and retaining a reliable sense of attachment and security with those we depend upon for support. Now, a brief, plausible account of the players and relational dynamics from our scenario:

At an individual level, the president is defensively excluding his felt sense of vulnerability. His personal history and pattern of development as a child and through youth was shaped importantly by significant others (mother and father) who responded positively to his demonstrated capacity to compete and succeed. But they were not particularly attuned or supportively responsive in helping him address his worries. So, he learned to suppress these unwelcome emotions and to rely on active coping strategies, usually independent action. And he built a brand on that strategy.

Most of those who worked with him had learned to accommodate this strategy and to emulate it in their interactions with him. In fact, he praised the “low-maintenance” style of those who did not whine or play the “victim role.” So, they participated in a silent conspiracy to suppress felt worries, which up to this point had not been too problematic; although, it may have contributed to the failure of the previous sales head, who found himself unable to raise issues and worries about sales trends with the team.

Now, the new head of sales felt similarly in jeopardy, isolated, and without allies in challenging the present approach to divisional management. He had given up on being candid and direct based on the feedback he’d received. He also knew the issues needed to be addressed. He was beginning to wonder if he should warm up relationships with search consultants. He respected the president’s tactical acumen, but he was afraid to invite collaboration for fear that his more “theoretical” (i.e., strategic) style of thought would meet with derision and maybe get him fired.

Working Through and Growth

Any time we notice anxiety in ourselves or in the dynamics of the group with whom we are interacting, we can assume that some aspects of our affective experience are being excluded and there are needs we have that are not being met. Associated with the excluded affect are cognitions, motivations, and action tendencies.[ii] So, when the emotions are preemptively excluded from our awareness, we also lose access to the related thoughts, motivations, and action tendencies associated with those emotions.

We call this “defensive” exclusion of affect because it is motivated by a felt need to protect ourselves from a threat. At some point earlier in our lives, we learned that certain feelings could or could not be expressed without fear of losing the affection, attention, and support of others—especially our mother and caregivers when we were young. Many of these appraisals of what is safe or dangerous to feel and express were made in the preverbal, precognitive stage of life, and they continue to operate and affect us into adulthood and outside our conscious awareness.

When I speak of emotional freedom in this regard (see my previous blog on the Reflective Function), I am referring to our capacity to recover access to this disowned emotional experience, and, by doing so, to also recover access to the associated cognitive, affective, and practical data of experience associated with that emotion. The good news is that there are ways to reclaim the contents of these “dead zones,” but it will usually require that we do so in the context of a helping relationship.

So, when you consider your approach to development—at the individual, team, or organizational level—keep in mind that such development is not complete unless it accounts for what is defensively excluded from awareness. Reclaiming access to this experience makes us smarter and more capable. In closing, keep in mind that we did not create these dead zones by ourselves, and we will not reclaim access to them by ourselves.

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[i] One could question whether this group really is a team given the extent of what is defensively excluded. It seems, in fact, that one way to differentiate a team from a group might be by the size of what is considered “minefield” territory.

[ii] That’s what it means for non-emotional contents of experience (thoughts, opinions, beliefs, action tendencies, concerns, etc.) to be “affectively cued.” Our emotions serve an implicitly intentional-cognitive purpose, they are “about something,” not just pointless feelings. When we suppress and disown these emotions, we lose access to those data. Therefore, we actually know less than we otherwise might, we act out of less complete and accurate awareness.