Why Do Workers Behave Like Babies?

Aren't there times at work when the drama of it all just gets to you?

I'm not talking about your own drama - I'm talking about all that drama that your colleagues and employees bring with them. And it doesn't matter how many times you tell them to leave it at home - they bring all their baggage with them, turning the office into junior high school.

Well now, maybe there's a better way to deal with your drama kings and queens.

Baby with telephone
Baby with telephone

Guest Author Blog:Why Workers Behave Like Babies –And What to Do About It by Sylvia Lafair, PhD, author of “Don’t Bring It to Work”

If you manage people, chances are you’ve had the following thought from time to time: “My colleagues and employees are behaving like children.” Chances are, you’re right: they are.

Here’s why and what you can do about it.

The original organization we all joined was the family. It is where we learned about fairness, competition, honesty, responsibility, favoritism, betrayal, and appreciation. It is, at its core, an emotional system. All business organizations have the same basic elements that are found in the family.

Guest Author Blog
Guest Author Blog

While we yearn for the work environment to be logical and analytical, that’s only half the story.

Without understanding the emotional components of the business world and the remnants we all bring from our childhood families, we will continue to repeat and repeat behavior that is no longer useful or productive. With this knowledge comes power for lasting and positive change.

Workplace change comes about by identifying the patterns of interaction from the family that are repeated at the office.

Here are some of the signs of those annoying and universal patterns visible in every organization:

  • increased absenteeism (avoider)
  • reduced productivity (procrastinator)
  • friction with employees (persecutor/bully)
  • crying or yelling (drama queen/king)
  • being accident prone (victim)
  • making jokes out of everything (clown)
  • work early/home late/complain (martyr)

Don’t bring it to work is the traditional mantra; only work issues allowed. However, if we shut down expressing ourselves in adult ways, sharing our concerns and struggles, stress builds and emotions get buried in deeper, more primal parts of our nervous systems until, like a latent volcano, they begin to bubble and finally erupt. That is when the patterned responses of fight, flight, or freeze take over.

Organizations that offer “pattern aware” training to their employees lessen the depth of conflicts and the time spent with upsets.

Sylvia Flair's "Don't Bring it To Work"
Sylvia Flair's "Don't Bring it To Work"

Here is the ABC of creating an environment that will limit the childhood anxiety and stress from taking charge:

Authenticity: You want to encourage the safe expression of emotions. But you don’t want to overindulge it. A stiff upper lip culture buries the truth. Too much sharing and emotional give-and-take can pull you into a swamp of overthink and overtalk. Instead, help your employees learn to speak from an “I” place where they are accountable for their own behavior and will say what they think and feel without judging, blaming, or attacking others. We learned to protect ourselves as kids and played the “he did it, she did it, they did it” game which morphed into “CYA” in the workplace. While the first person “I’ model of expressing emotions is teachable, like eating exotic food, it takes getting used to.

Balance: Offices structured with excessive emphasis on rules create atmospheres of secrets and collusion. Those that are too flexible are filled with gossip and rumors. Let your workforce know what is non-negotiable up front. At the same time have a vehicle for dialogue when circumstances require a redefinition of priorities. Give employees an opportunity to be heard in a town hall meeting or smaller pods. As children we all learned how to manipulate the family system, either overtly or covertly to get what we wanted and we bring these behaviors to work with us. We were all looking for a way to be heard and acknowledged. Once employees are part of the dialogue it is surprising how willing they are to respond in an adult manner and go along with policies and procedures they have helped design.

Collaboration: Organizations that encourage overly open environments, where camaraderie takes the form of teasing or permitting snarly comments about others is disempowering. At the same time, discussing everything behind closed doors leaves little room for healthy group interaction or any real collegiality. This takes us all back to the playground where we were either part of the in group or not. Inclusion rather than exclusion is at the heart of healthy collaboration. Look for ways to bring diverse groups together, perhaps by setting up community based projects. Create a culture where the bottom line of relationships is “we are all in it together and no one wins unless we all do”.

It boils down to finding the way OUT. First, learn to OBSERVE behavior patterns that are getting in the way of creativity and collaboration. Next, UNDERSTAND where the behaviors originated.

Finally, use tools to TRANSFORM the patterns into their healthy opposites. Becoming pattern aware is the work of 21st century leaders.


Sylvia Lafair
Sylvia Lafair

Sylvia Lafair, PhD, is president of CEO—Creative Energy Options, Inc., a global consulting company focused on optimizing workplace relationships through her exclusive PatternAware™ leadership model.

Dr. Lafair has a doctorate in clinical psychology.

Dr. Lafair is the author of "Don't Bring It to Work: Breaking the Family Patterns that Limit Success" published by Jossey-Bass.