The problem with not addressing the emotional drivers of behavior is that we end up acting out our feelings instead. Acting out is a term used to describe self‐ protective behaviors that arise from feeling afraid or having our needs frustrated. It is easier to perform an action rather than bearing the feeling (i.e. fear, anxiety) and tolerating the unknown. Usually acting out is designed to make the other people feel the way we do and is either done unconsciously or semi‐consciously. While someone is acting out, the action performed is destructive to self or others and may inhibit developing more constructive responses to the feelings.
We are all capable of acting out when we don’t feel our fears. Everyone acts out and it is very important to know just how we and others around us do it to avert workplace dysfunction. Acting out takes many forms at work. A common example is when an employee isn’t able to complete a project on time and is afraid to tell their manager. They live with the fear of the impending consequences of missing the deadline, sometimes making themselves sick with worry. They feel powerless in the situation. When the project is due, they are apologetic and remorseful about not completing it; secretly hoping their manager will be sympathetic and are silently angry at them when they aren’t. The manager ends up feeling as helpless as the employee because the deadline has come and gone and there is nothing they can do. Another example is when a manager is afraid to say something to an employee when they aren’t mastering some of the basics of their job. Instead, they tell themselves the employee should have mastered their job by now and feel frustrated and angry that they haven’t. They ignore the employee and avoid speaking to them. The employee has no idea why their manager is treating them the way they are and become increasingly anxious, making more mistakes as a result. Ultimately the employee is let go because of their poor performance. They feel angry and frustrated by the lack of interest in helping them be successful. The manager writes it off as a hiring error. Acting out creates organizational dysfunction and is emotionally driven. We have worked with some of the top people in Fortune 500 companies, entrepreneurs and other leadership groups who weren’t afraid to say they were acting out and wanted to stop because they were getting in the way of their own success. They were eager to find out their part in creating the dysfunction so they could do something about it. Knowing allowed them to shift their own behaviors and work with their own fears, taking themselves out of their comfort zones into new emotional territory. When someone isn’t behaving properly at work or acting out in training activities, we look at what fear may be driving their behavior. While it is easier to tell someone to change their behavior than to interpret what might be going on with them and to have a conversation with them about this, it doesn’t move people out of their comfort zone. Many leaders fear that by having these conversations they won’t do a good job of it or it makes them emotionally uncomfortable to have that type of dialogue. But dealing only with behavior just addresses the problems and not the root cause. They act out in avoidance of having to experience fear and anxiety, and because the acting out behavior is easier than moving out of their comfort zone. As both managers and employees continue to behave the same way, nothing changes.