The Fight Club: Aggressive/Defensive Archetypes

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An excerpt from the book Unfear.

Unfear can be purchased at the following places.

These sorts of behaviors might be summed up as “the best defense is a strong offense.” People who display these behaviors often go on the attack in order to feel safe. Aggressive/Defensive patterns are built by putting what is best for the self or one’s own tribe over the long-term interest of the entire organization and its stakeholders. In the world of emotional fear, this category of behaviors describes the active, confrontational measures people take to protect their status and security. This group is motivated by a desire to prove to the world their “specialness” (in terms of talent, intelligence, accomplishments, work ethic, etc.) as a protective response to threats. People or groups with these tendencies put down or scapegoat others to avoid showing vulnerability or admitting mistakes, which impedes their own ability to reflect and grow. For each of the archetypes, we identify the dysfunctional stories they tell themselves, their positive values and intentions, and their negative outcomes.

We can leverage our superpowers to realize that we don’t have to be stuck in these archetypes.

Fault Finders

Fault Finders2 believe that personal and organizational power comes from identifying and preventing problems. Fault Finders think that highlighting all the things that aren’t right with themselves, others, and circumstances will prevent unhappy surprises and demonstrate to the world Eight Fear Archetypes in the Workplace 55 their competence and worth. To keep themselves safe, they identify all the faults and deficiencies they can find in their environment or in the people with whom they interact.

Fault Finders value their contributions to collective efforts. They value problem identification and solving. They desire continuous improvement and environments in which people have high standards for themselves and others. Because of this, they have a discerning eye and can point out where things could have been done differently or better. They also can detect and mitigate risks associated with a given action that other people miss.

However, their dysfunctional relationship with fear causes Fault Finders to weaponize their discerning eye. This leads to excessive judgment of ideas and other people. A Fault-Finding culture tends to get caught up in unnecessary conflict that leads to stagnation because everyone spends more time identifying problems than solving them. When companies with a Fault-Finding culture do solve problems, they settle on the solutions that have the least “faults,” which tend to be safe but are often ineffective or narrow in scope.

A Fault-Finding culture looks a lot like this: You walk into an important strategy meeting to propose a direction for the department to members of the executive team. Just as you’re about to present, one of the executives asks, “Why haven’t you invited the head of procurement to this meeting?”

It all goes downhill from there. As you present the vision, people poke holes in the logic or ask for implementation details that you don’t have on the slides. When you ask the group for ideas, they offer all the reasons why your suggestions will never work. Perhaps most frustrating of all, someone perks up and says that on page 5, line 6, the font size is 10 points when the company standard is 12. We are, of course, exaggerating a little for effect, but you get the picture. Fault Finders defend themselves and their egos by attacking others, opposing new ideas, being critical of others and their work, and making safe decisions to avoid criticism.


We all have a little bit of the Controller3 in us—it’s that desire to be able to predict the outcome of our choices, to be certain about our future, to keep the unruly forces of chaos at bay. Controllers tend to believe that the world is a dangerous place and that their power or that of the group comes solely from their ability to control outcomes. And positive outcomes are synonymous with self-worth.

Eight Fear Archetypes in the Workplace 57 Controllers value stability and respect. They sense that uncertainty, if not managed or understood properly, can lead to bad outcomes. They see and respond to risks and uncertainty in the environment. Rather than leave roles and responsibilities ambiguous, for instance, they create clear lanes for action and decision-making.

The instinct to exercise control is the primary driving force behind most of the social, governmental, and technological innovations in human history. From fire, to tools, to agriculture, to laws, to governments, to cars, to corporations, to computers, humans have sought to exert control over the uncertain forces of nature and other people. Control is useful. It provides stability, helps us attain what we desire, and helps us survive.

Controllers protect themselves by micromanaging subordinates, keeping decision-making power to themselves, and leveraging their expertise to dictate each point of a solution. Often Controllers will prioritize the hierarchy of an organization and yield power to their superiors while keeping a tight rein over their subordinates. In our experience, controlling behaviors emerge most often in senior levels of organizations or in situations where expertise is critical to decision-making (e.g., the lead doctor on a traditional surgical team). In many situations, this need to control comes from a lack of confidence. The Controller attempts to manipulate the external world in order to control and manage their fear of their internal world.

This has a predictable effect: a controlling culture disempowers most members in an organization and empowers those at the top. An employee’s worth is determined by his or her location in the hierarchy, not by the employee’s actual contributions. This leads employees to hold back their ideas and knowledge and become dependent on leaders for direction and decisions. It’s safer not to upset the existing structures and egos of those in charge. The overt discipline and structure seen in these kinds of organizations create (and often hide) the resentment that employees feel.

One of the most quintessential Controllers we have ever met once blurted out, “This is not a democracy!” He was a senior political appointee in a federal government agency who hired us to improve the effectiveness and decision-making in his department. Even though the members of his team had great prior corporate work experience and were highly capable, they showed up with a negative attitude and only did what they were told. Despite impressive backgrounds and accomplishments, they didn’t show any initiative. When we spoke with the appointee’s team, we discovered that none of them were allowed to make their own decisions. They often had to wait weeks for the leader’s approval, and in situations of disagreement, the leader’s point of view always prevailed.

After our discussions with employees, we suggested to the leader that his behavior stymied his employees. This was when he very clearly announced that this wasn’t a democracy and that he didn’t hire us to fix him, but his employees. Ironically, this leader wanted his team to take more initiative. Even after our discussions, the leader wouldn’t budge. Not surprisingly, the team struggled to create any meaningful cultural shift toward their stated goals of “initiative” and “accountability.”


Competitors4 believe that their worth and value are synonymous with how they compare with others. They believe that the path to acceptance and love is through besting others and being recognized for it. Competitors seek security in life by winning. They perceive the world as being made up of winners and losers, and they’re very clear about which camp they want to be in. This is a deeply individualistic orientation, primarily motivated by a desire to compare favorably with others. Competitors seek achievement to make themselves look better than others instead of seeking achievement to create a personal or collective sense of satisfaction.

Competitors value achievement, improvement, and recognition. These can be forces for good. Companies need to compete for customers and market share. This can drive important improvements in products, services, and internal operations over time. Companies compete for talented people, which often drives companies to offer better work environments over time. Within companies, the ideas offered by individual employees compete to determine the path forward on a key project. All these mini competitions can drive the performance of a business, but only if they don’t spill over into dysfunction.

An excessively Competitive culture values winning above everything and actively encourages internal competitiveness. This results in reduced effectiveness, silos, and unrealistic standards of performance that lead to missed opportunities for collaboration, learning, and improvement. It also drains the joy out of work and creates burnout and exhaustion. For Competitors, good is never enough. They have to do better than others. The constant comparison with others leaves big blind spots, wastes energy, and shuts down learning. If left unchecked, a culture dedicated to winning tends to ignore the organization’s core values. This can lead to counterproductive and unethical practices. The story of Enron’s rise and fall, for instance, offers one cautionary tale about the downsides of excessive competition.

I (Mark) have identified quite strongly with this archetype through most of my adult life. I distinctly remember the day I was cut from the junior high school baseball team and the day I broke my finger and couldn’t finish tryouts for the high school basketball team. These experiences were painful. I felt like a loser. I subscribed to the story that only winners would be popular, have fun in life, and be successful. Eventually, I poured my heart and soul into golf. I was very good at it. I started winning golf tournaments and won a golf scholarship to college.

While my dreams of playing on the PGA Tour were dashed fairly early in my college career, the competitive drive within me remained. Fueled by fear of being seen as a loser, I worked hard to win wherever I found myself. I pushed myself to get A’s in college, be seen as a top achiever in my units in the Navy, start my nonmilitary career at one of the top consulting firms in the world, and strive to be better than my peers at McKinsey.

While this competitive orientation spurred me to work hard and achieve, it also came with a huge and largely unacknowledged dark side. I was extremely hard on myself. I became judgmental of myself and others. I lost the joy of playing golf and instead found only disappointment and anger. I was prickly and insecure at times in my early Navy days. I experienced burnout and exhaustion in my consulting work. I was on a never-ending treadmill of chasing short-term wins but rarely questioning the longer-term consequences of those efforts on my performance and well-being or on others. The Competitor within me was driven by fear, and for a long time, I just couldn’t see that or how to get beyond it.


Perfectionists5 believe that their worth and safety are synonymous with the quality of their output. Mistakes, errors, and problems indicate their insufficiency and unworthiness—so they work extra hard to prove to the world that they’re worthy. Perfectionistic cultures believe that heroic human efforts achieve perfection. They discount systemic ways to improve quality and excellence while celebrating extrahuman efforts, no matter how much waste they produce.

Perfectionists value high-quality work and high standards of achievement. Many industries require this level of attention to detail: nuclear power, industrial chemicals, high-tech or precision manufacturing, the military, healthcare, and aviation. In most of these industries, sloppiness could result in death. Even in less dramatic situations, consistent quality can make the difference between a successful long-term strategy and one that fails. High-risk, high-uncertainty industries or roles (e.g., investing, underwriting, marketing, or product development) face difficult choices about when a product or decision is “ready.” A desire to get things right in these situations is well founded and necessary.

Perfectionists make themselves feel safe by avoiding mistakes at all costs. They keep track of everything, dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s, and work long hours to attain narrowly defined goals. When a Perfectionist delivers something, it is a thing of beauty. However, the Perfectionist way of working also creates various problems. Perfectionists define perfect by their own standards instead of the standards of their customers. Because of this, they attempt to control each aspect of the process so that the product meets their exact vision. This silences other voices. Perfectionists often get so lost in the details that they fail to adjust to changing priorities. Often, when they finally look up to survey the broader situation, they discover that they’ve been trying to solve the wrong problem.

Perfectionists insist that any activity related to quality can’t be questioned or changed. As a result, they miss all kinds of opportunities to avoid excess processing and rework. Members of Perfectionist cultures tend to show symptoms of strain and stress. They may have a story about how necessary their efforts are, but they’re exhausted and drained at the same time.

Given the success of Apple over the last two decades, it is easy to forget just how tumultuous and tenuous its early years were under Steve Jobs. According to the biography by Walter Isaacson,6 Jobs was a notorious Perfectionist. People found him difficult to work with, and his obsessive tinkering nearly sank some of the company’s early and most important products. While Jobs was unquestionably visionary, he was also extremely lucky. The launch of the original Macintosh, for instance, was more than two years behind schedule but ended up being successful in part because some Competitors slipped up.

The conflict stemming from Jobs’s perfectionism caused his departure from Apple shortly after the launch of the Macintosh. Isaacson suggests that during the 10 years Jobs spent away from the company, he learned to soften his leadership style and to allow more voices into the creative process. In short, he learned to let go of some of the hard-driving Perfectionist tendencies he’d clung to. He was much more successful the second time around, launching Apple on a strong trajectory with worldchanging products such as the iPhone.

Overall, Perfectionists struggle with efficiency and balance. They spend most of their time toiling on the few final details of a task rather than getting feedback and input much earlier in the process. All of these dynamics create situations that make it difficult for individuals and groups to learn quickly and collaborate their way to achieving meaningful goals. Perfectionists struggle mightily to work in agile environments where small and potentially imperfect outputs are created and tested at frequent intervals.