Destructive Behavior Cycles

Have you ever been in a difficult situation with a colleague, supervisor, or direct report where your first thought is, “here we go again”?  Often when unhealthy conflict rears its ugly head, we react quickly and appropriately.  But sometimes, for whatever reason, we allow actions or behaviors to go unaddressed (or under-addressed), and soon realize that what you once thought was an isolated annoyance is actually a seemingly unending, unwelcome pattern of behavior.  These patterns can do more than just get under your skin. If left to spin away, negative cycles can poison a relationship, erode team spirit, and ultimately destroy an individual’s or organization’s potential for growth and prosperity.

Destructive Behavior Cycles

We call these Destructive Behavior Cycles and define them as a repetitive behavior or mode of responding that is sometimes acted out unconsciously and has a damaging impact on ourselves or others. These behavior patterns are a normal part of life both in and out of the workplace.  At home, the cost of being stuck in a destructive behavior loop can be anything from miscommunication that leads to broken relationships, to not paying financial obligations on time and ruining ones credit.  Some of the potential costs of Destructive Behavior Cycles in the workplace are diminished partnerships, decreased job satisfaction, and impeded progress toward a goal.  Workplace Destructive Behavior Cycles can have an added cost, literally, to the bottom line of an organization.

Destructive Behavior Cycles manifest at the workplace in various guises: the control freak, the poor me syndrome, the blamer, the enabler, the lack-luster leader, and the list goes on and on.  As managers, often we attempt to treat the symptoms without knowing how to get to the root of the problem, or in keeping with the metaphor, how to break the pattern before it spins out of control.

The first step to overcoming a Destructive Cycle is to recognize it.  This can be difficult sometimes, and especially when we are so close to a situation that our vision is obscured by proximity.  When you first recognize that you are caught in a destructive pattern, notice it, and then no matter how minor the change, do something different.  Once you begin responding differently, the entire situation is subject to change.  Taking action can be harder in a Destructive Cycle than in other difficult scenarios. It is not as easy to address problems that are deeply ingrained in our daily routines and expectations.  After enough failed attempts to correct a problem, we often navigate around it and learn to live with “just the way it is”.

A Destructive Cycle can involve only one individual.  Sometimes an individual’s personal cycle can manifest itself in diverse situations creating a diversity of negative cycles. An example is Jane who silently berates her self at home and who at work rarely participates in group settings because she doesn’t feel she has anything of value to offer.  But more often Destructive Cycles, are multiple patterns interacting with each other.  Imagine Jane is now a member of a task team and rarely volunteers for assignments.  Another member, Mary, who is overly ambitious signs up for too many tasks and becomes overloaded, exhausted, and frustrated that she has to manage more than her fair share. Everyday in organizations we unknowingly perpetuate these cycles by not addressing the underperformer and offering the overworked task team member praise and recognition.  This fortifies Jane’s pattern of disconnection and continues to perpetuate Mary’s cycle of setting ineffective boundaries.

Below are examples of common Destructive Cycles, and some quick tips to help you start the process of changing things up.

The Cycle of Disempowerment: This is the cycle of blame, irresponsibility, submissiveness, and martyrdom.  People caught in this cycle often point fingers, make excuses, and look for a reason outside of themselves when things go wrong.  They may have trouble saying “no” and then resent being taken advantage of later. They are problem-oriented, and often put a greater amount of energy into finding cracks and obstacles than they do solutions and results.

Tip: Throw a monkey wrench into the cycle. Often times, just lobbing an unexpected element is enough to disrupt a cycle’s center of gravity and force a conversation.   If you personally are stuck in this pattern of behavior, start looking for solutions based on what you can control. If you have a tendency to blame, catch yourself blaming and ask yourself questions like; what can I do to improve this situation?  Or, what’s my part in all of this?  If you say yes when you want to say no, and then have resentments, practice new ways of setting personal boundaries.

If you recognize someone on your team is in this cycle, be careful not to rob them of power by taking ownership of their responsibilities. Often it is easy to see the pattern in someone else.  The solution is not in fixing them, but in changing our response to their behavior.

The Cycle of Disrespect: This is the cycle of contempt, often signaled by eye contact (or lack there of), body language and tone of voice.  The symptoms of disrespect can sometimes be subtle and hard to detect.  Most often, however, contempt is unapologetically blatant.

Tip: From the moment you recognize you are back in the pattern again, slow everything down and buy yourself some time to choose your response.  Twenty seconds now, can save you countless hours of frustration later.  If you catch yourself being sarcastic or patronizing another, stop immediately. Apologize if appropriate.  Focus on the task at hand rather than personalities.

If you recognize someone on your team is in this cycle, don’t let the behavior trigger a knee jerk response.  The old adage take a breath and count-to-ten is sound advice today.  Don’t sweep this toxic behavior under the rug.  Model how to address difficult situations, but do it with respect.

The Cycle of Disconnection: This is a continued pattern of disinterest and disengagement.  This cycle is most recognizable by silence, withdrawal, or apathy.  Individuals caught in a Cycle of Disconnection find it difficult to get engaged for a variety of reasons.

Tip: Dig deeper to gain awareness.  Understanding what is at the root of a behavior pattern, gives you the freedom to choose a different response.  If you are bored and disengaged at work, discover why.  What can you do to get yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally back in the game?  If you are in the wrong job, maybe it’s time to explore other opportunities. Life is too short to settle for hum drum.

If you suspect someone on your team is caught in this cycle at work, initiate a conversation.  Dig deeper to uncover their interests.  Ask questions such as, what do you enjoy most about your work? Aligning core values in the workplace is a key skill for managers to possess.