The use of reaction formation in the workplace (explanation)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 8 July 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Wanting to fit in is something that many of us experience. Whether it's at work, around friends and family or in any other scenario, the desire to fit in with those around you is commonplace. Reaction formation is one of the ways that people attempt to shift their personality into something they view as being more in tandem with the broader situation. In this article, we explain the use of reaction formation in the workplace is, and how to develop a reaction formulation for certain employment scenes.

What is the use of reaction formation in the workplace?

The use of reaction formation in the workplace is a coping mechanism. It's more common than many realise. Whether you're starting a new job or changing the office environment, reaction formations are something that many people do at least once in their careers. You generally trigger reaction formation due to feeling like a part of your personality, or a personal trait, doesn't fit in with wider society. This is typically down to society's perception of those traits, or else your belief of how society responds to those traits.

Within the workplace, employees develop reaction formation when they feel like there is an element of their personality that's holding them back from fulfilling their potential. In response to this, an individual may suppress the trait to make others like them more, opening up further potential for opportunities like promotion in the future. You also do reaction formation to impress superiors or to adjust to a new working environment.

Why do people develop reaction formations in the workplace?

There are many reasons why an individual develops a reaction formation in the workplace. It's rarely a conscious decision to do so. Instead, reaction formations are mechanisms people develop unconsciously in response to something or someone. People also commonly refer to reaction formations as a defence mechanism for this reason. Some of the reasons people most commonly express as to why reaction formations develop in the workplace include:

  • a desire to fit in with the pre-existing workplace culture

  • a motivation to climb the workplace ladder by impressing superiors

  • a preference to avoid confrontation within the workplace

How to develop reaction formation at the workplace

More times than not, the development of a reaction formation in any instance is an unconscious practice. This means that there is no way to concretely develop a reaction formation. There are some things that you can do that results in reaction formations forming:

1. Identify your personal traits

The first step in consciously developing a reaction formation in the workplace is to identify all of your traits and characteristics. The easiest way to do this is to make a list of all of the adjectives you believe describe you. If you can't think of any, ask those that know you for words to describe you personally. Aim to have both positive and negative traits on there. It's likely to be a negative trait that you want to suppress to improve on it. In this stage, be as detailed as feasibly possible.

As you are in your own head all of the time, establishing what is a trait and what is a part of normal behaviour is increasingly difficult. This means that in addition to personal introspection, ask some of your colleagues what your positive and negative personality traits are in the workplace. You gain a more comprehensive idea of your workplace behaviour and an accurate view of the way people perceive you and your work.

2. Determine which trait you would like to change

Once you have written down a list of all of the traits that you feel define you, the next step is to determine which of the traits you would like to change. You can opt to create reaction formations in response to multiple traits; it's easier to create a reaction to just one at first. This means that you create a safe and well-thought-out reaction formation. To determine which trait you would like to change, consider which trait holds the largest amount of weight when it comes to wanting to improve yourself.

3. Decide how you intend to change the trait

Following on from identifying the trait you want to change, your next step is to decide how you intend to change that trait. Another option is to work to suppress that trait instead. Deciding which of the two options you intend to proceed with enables you to create the reaction formation. If you want to replace the trait with another one, such as replacing anger with patience, come up with a plan that allows you to implement this change on both a mental and practical level.

Related: How to improve your active listening skills

4. Begin to implement the change

The final step in developing a reaction formation is to work on implementing the changes to the chosen trait. You can implement these changes in increments; this helps you to remain calm and feel in control of the situation at all times. In the workplace, monitor how colleagues and superiors respond to the change. Positive reactions mean you keep moving forward with the change. Steadily implementing the changes also means that you can adjust your reaction formation plan where you deem it necessary.

Related: 15 leadership competencies and how to develop them

Examples of reaction formation at the workplace

Although knowing what the theory of reaction formation is, converting that into a real-world situation is essential. It provides a better perspective of the subtle social cues and adjustments people make without realising it, better placing you if you work with members of staff directly. Below are some examples of the use of reaction formulas in the workplace:

Low levels of patience

David starts a new job working in an administrative position within an office. He is aware that he sometimes has lower levels of patience. This new job requires a great deal of patience, so if he wants to succeed in his role then he needs to work on being more patient. David now begins to unconsciously act more courteous and polite around his colleagues in an attempt to hide the fact that he is quick to rise to frustration sometimes.

This is a positive use of reaction formation. The shift away from aggressive behaviours and towards those more endearing to colleagues is essential to having a positive impact on the workplace and fostering better relationships. David's new behaviour acts as a social lubricant, endearing him to his colleagues and increasing the quality of your professional relationships. David ultimately fares better in the workplace.

Interrupting conversations

Susan tends to interrupt after a conversation passes her by, getting her point in even if the discussion is comfortably past the point of relevance. She notices this, and subconsciously tones down the extent to which she intervenes after the fact. Her strategy includes involving herself in conversations proactively, getting her point into the conversation at the right time rather than waiting until later.

This is a significant benefit for Susan's professional life. Coworkers hold her in higher regard due to the lack of interruption in day to day conversation as seen previously, in addition to the later conversations going more smoothly thanks to remaining on topic. Furthermore, Susan's points get across in more and more meetings, increasing her influence in the company and boosting her value within the organisation in the long term.

Related: The importance of good communication in organisations

Losing focus at work

James typically zones out of conversations in the workplace, shifting focus away from the conversation at hand and, instead, opening new tabs on his PC and browsing social media. Noting a fall in productivity, James investigates his conduct. Furthermore, he asks colleagues for their opinion on his working habits for a better perspective on the way that he works.

His coworkers' perceptions of him are important as he holds a key role in the company. James subconsciously shifts his behaviour, using a new browser for all of his work-related tasks and not signing into social media on the new browser. Furthermore, James practices active listening and improves the way he receives information from other people. This focus on other people and improved conversation mean that James is much more efficient in the workplace, focusing on his tasks and boosting the profits of his company, in addition to his performance-related bonuses.

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