The Nice Club: Passive/Defensive Archetypes

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An excerpt from the book Unfear.

Unfear can be purchased at the following places.

People or organizations exhibiting these behaviors (flight or freeze responses) hide from impending threats. They focus on smoothing over what’s uncomfortable and putting on a happy face. When things go wrong, they divert attention elsewhere or deflect responsibility. This prevents people from asking questions, sharing dissenting points of view with colleagues, and challenging existing practices directly.

Passive/Defensive culture norms are grounded in the management philosophy that the average employee dislikes work and will try to get away with doing the bare minimum. Passive/Defensive leaders believe the best way to motivate people is through tight controls or rules, clear direction, and punitive action if those rules or directions are not followed. Over time, this philosophy leads to workplaces where employees, in the quest for safety and job preservation, prefer to be directed and avoid taking responsibility and ownership. In a way, a strong Passive/ Defensive culture is one in which most people have a degree of learned helplessness.

Organizations with a Passive/Defensive culture can survive for a while, but only in highly stable environments with minimal competition. They struggle tremendously when facing competition or the general uncertainty of the modern business environment.


Avoiders7 believe that conflict and chaos are dangerous. They believe that it is riskier to take action than it is to play it safe and do nothing. This archetype seeks safety by avoiding any conflicts or uncomfortable/uncertain situations. Avoiders doubt their ability to manage these situations and perceive the workplace as a minefield where any step they take might lead to an explosion.

Avoiders value peace and reflection. They avoid drama. Where Aggressive/Defensive people or teams can stir up unproductive conflict, Avoiders see the dysfunction in those dynamics and steer clear of it. They may not understand the dysfunction in their own behaviors (or nonbehaviors), but at least they don’t actively add fuel to the fire.

An organization with an Avoider culture encourages inaction in the face of challenging situations in the exact moments when they need action. Members tend to look the other way, gloss over problems, and resist taking even the most calculated of risks. These organizations get stuck in their comfort zone and struggle to adapt to their environment. Avoideroriented cultures lack energy, inspiration, and continuous improvement.

They may keep their heads down to meet the demands of today, but they’re not creating the conditions to meet the demands of tomorrow. At best, they get by.
A common example of Avoiders in organizations are people or teams that avoid naming the uncomfortable issues or “elephants in the room.”

For instance, before the pandemic, we worked with one government agency where managers were convinced that some employees were abusing telework policies. At the same time, other employees had recently filed grievances through the union about unfair treatment by managers. The managers didn’t want to address telework with the employees out of fear that they would spawn more grievances. The employees, meanwhile, didn’t feel like they could safely discuss their needs without upsetting other employees or the union representatives. The union representatives were afraid that if they talked with the managers, they’d look weak. To everyone, the uneasy détente among these groups seemed better than taking any action. Needless to say, when this kind of fear is going on, no real conversations about telework happened and no creative solutions materialized. Everyone avoided the topic. No one was happy.


Minions8 believe that success is directly related to what the boss thinks of them. They draw their sense of worth from others with more expertise and positional power. For Minions, the only customer is the boss. Minions seek safety in current power structures, being good followers, keeping their heads down, and not rocking the boat. They live by the mantra, “Do what you’re told, and we’ll all be fine.”

Minions value tradition, respect, and safety. They understand the value of clear roles and responsibilities and how hierarchical structures can help effectively regulate the flow of information and resources in organizations. They acknowledge the expertise and responsibilities of others and have no problem giving people with the proper expertise the power to make decisions.

A Minion-oriented culture, more than any other, shifts the focus away from pleasing customers toward serving the bosses. This creates an insular organization that wastes valuable energy and talent on internal power instead of value-added work. Minions tend to adopt a helpless or passive stance in the face of challenges. They look to others to provide guidance.

Companies with a strong Minion culture usually put far too much decision-making power at the top of the hierarchy. This has four effects. First, decision quality suffers because leaders receive minimal input from the employees who have a more accurate sense of the frontline reality. Second, top leaders or select experts drive improvement efforts without soliciting the ideas and talents of most people in the organization. Third, a Minion culture creates rigid and bureaucratic processes. A few people at the top need to sign off on everything, which reduces agility. Fourth, most of the talented and motivated people leave for organizations where they have more autonomy and freedom, leaving a higher percentage of Minions behind.

Minion cultures are almost always found in organizations with leaders who demonstrate strong Controller tendencies. In these organizations, employees frequently reference the leader as the reason why they’re doing something or prioritizing a particular task. They also obsess over the leader’s emotional state in interactions because it will have an outsized impact on their day.

In a technology company we worked with recently, most people in the organization pointed to the CEO as the reason they were working on something even if they didn’t agree with it as opposed to framing their work in terms of how it contributed to the organization’s or customers’ outcomes. This CEO’s moods were a main topic of conversation as well. If the CEO was in a good mood, so was everyone else. If she was in a distressed mood, employees took on that level of distress. They were all locked in a fear-based dance.


Sticklers9 believe that obsessively following the rules will protect their sense of worth and power. Rules become a shield to be used for protection rather than a way to achieve positive outcomes for everyone. Sticklers view rules as a source of security and an unassailable statement of truth.

Sticklers value tradition, the wisdom of the past, and consistency. They cherish fairness and equity. Like hierarchies, rules have their place in high-performing organizations. In high-risk industries (e.g., aviation, nuclear power, healthcare), following rules and established precedent is absolutely essential for safe and reliable operations and effective decisionmaking. These kinds of rules were born out of years of trial and error.

A Stickler-focused culture, like a Minion culture, creates the expecta-tion that members will follow others instead of taking initiative. The difference is that a Minion follows a certain person in the hierarchy, whereas a Stickler serves an abstract hierarchy. Sticklers rely on the rule book, the established best practices, and company norms to make them feel safe in the face of pushback or uncertainty. Sticklers are so risk adverse that even if the leader explicitly tells them to disregard the rules, they’ll push back and say the rules are most important. They shun creative approaches as unreliable and view those who try new things with suspicion. Because of this, organizations with a Stickler culture struggle with continuous improvement. The rules become rigid and fixed as opposed to living, evolving stores of knowledge and wisdom about how to achieve desired results.

Whenever we start a new consulting project, we ask our clients, “Why do you do it this way?,” referencing important practices in the work environment. Whenever we hear, “Because that’s how it’s supposed to be done,” we know that the organization has a strong Stickler tendency. Individuals and groups with this pattern often succeed in introducing new ways of working (e.g., lean or agile practices) across large groups of people but struggle to create a true culture of experimentation or continuous improvement.

In 2017, a particularly visceral example of dysfunctional rule following went viral when United Airlines forcibly removed Dr. David Dao from an overbooked flight. United policy called for some passengers to be removed to make space for others in certain circumstances. The United employees were just following the rules that day as they dragged Dr. Dao screaming and bloodied out of his seat, down the aisle, and off the plane. The next day, the CEO sent an email to employees praising them for following the rules. It can be easy to demonize United Airlines for this and act like its employees were behaving in some evil way. This is potentially misguided. We take this incident as an indication that United has a powerful Stickler culture. Aviation has become one of the safest consumer industries in the world in spite of the fact that it is one of the riskiest. This is, in part, because of rule following. United requires extensive rules and bylaws to successfully fly and land hundreds of planes a day. In such an environment, it would make perfect sense for well-intentioned employees to follow the rules as closely as possible in a moment of uncertainty. As the company found out, sometimes this can be a mistake.


Likables10 believe that how other people feel about them determines their self-worth. Acceptance within a group is synonymous with safety and success. Likables believe that conflict is highly dangerous to trust and strong relationships.

Likables value trust, harmony, teamwork, and collaboration. Likables understand that trust and a sense of safety and belonging are essential to high performance. When they try to appease everybody, they do it because they believe that is how you build a high-performing team.

Likable individuals and groups obscure and gloss over the real issues they face. They play nice and go with the flow, even when pressing problems exist. Difficult conversations don’t take place, creative tension never arises, and meaningful problem solving rarely occurs. The collective organization stays in its comfort zone, and performance slowly fades over time.

Likables tend to take what people say or do personally and confuse productive, task-focused conflict and disagreement with destructive, relationship-based conflict. In an attempt to make everyone happy, they minimize disagreements, which can lead to stagnation.

A team or organization comprised of several Likables often will fall prey to what management expert Jerry B. Harvey calls the Abilene paradox.11 This paradox describes what happens when each team member believes, mistakenly, that what he or she wants runs counter to the desires of the group. In an attempt to please everyone, the whole group agrees to a proposal that nobody actually wants because no one spoke up about what they actually wanted. This is akin to a family deciding to order pizza because they believe that other family members are tired of Chinese food when, in reality, everyone wants more lo mein. Everyone stumbles into a suboptimal outcome when this dynamic is at play.

The Interplay of Archetypes

No one person, team, or organization expresses just one archetype. Individuals and groups demonstrate a couple of primary or driving archetypes and a few minor archetypes that show up in reaction to specific situations. Usually, these unique combinations of archetypes create compounding dysfunctions. For example, I (Gaurav) have an unusual combination of archetypes: Competitor and Likable. For my entire adult life, I’ve had a deep need to be seen as supersmart or “the best.” In groups, I hated admitting when I was wrong or not being the undisputed leader. At the same time, I also felt a need to be admired for my charming nature and ability to inspire.

Through many years of self-reflection, I have become increasingly conscious of these two tendencies and have learned how to manage them so that they don’t create dysfunction in my teams and in my company. But old patterns die hard. When I lose that awareness, I spend inordinate energy creating and projecting a manufactured persona that does not align with my true self. I oscillate between these tendencies, Gaurav the Competitor and Gaurav the Likable. And this can confuse the heck out of people because my colleagues never know which version will show up. They invest time and resources in managing my ego instead of in more productive work.

Similarly, in many organizations, Passive/Defensive and Aggressive/ Defensive behaviors reinforce each other and create a feedback loop of wasted energy. Two common patterns seen in these feedback loops are Aggressive leaders versus Passive employees and Aggressive leaders versus Aggressive leaders.

Aggressive Leaders Versus Passive Employees

This is one of the most common patterns that we observe. You can imagine how this can turn into a vicious, reinforcing cycle. Leaders, believing that their teams won’t move or perform unless clearly directed through rules, top-down commands, and harsh punishments, impose their will on the company. Employees, believing that the will of the leaders always prevails, fall in line but remain passive. They don’t put in discretionary effort out of a combination of burnout and fear that they will be punished for doing something that wasn’t requested of them. This reinforces the leaders’ belief that employees won’t perform without direction. Motivated or emboldened employees either learn to become passive or leave, and leaders who fit this culture get hired and promoted, further entrenching this cycle in the company’s culture.

Aggressive Leaders Versus Aggressive Leaders

Another pattern we often see in organizations is infighting across business units or functional groups. In these situations, leaders of different groups see the world as a zero-sum game and believe that the success of another leader is, by definition, a loss for them. We could call this the Game of Thrones pattern. Only one sovereign sits on the Iron Throne! Let the drama begin.

This is another self-reinforcing loop. A set of leaders with these tendencies will compete for resources, information, and recognition. They either find some success and believe that their strategy is working or they get frustrated that they’re not winning and redouble their efforts. This causes other leaders in this ecosystem to adopt an aggressive stance or leave the company because it’s not the environment in which they want to work. The cycle continues. In many of these situations, leaders and teams lack a shared sense of purpose, meaning, trust, and belonging.

Everyone is stuck in their individual orientation, and nobody pays attention to the bigger picture and how they can contribute to something beyond themselves or their narrow interests.

While these are the most common negative cycles we see, they aren’t the only ones. Individual archetypes can clash to create vicious, draining dysfunction. Archetype conflicts aren’t always limited to leader-team and leader-leader dynamics. Sometimes one employee will try to control a peer while another colleague avoids that employee. Likewise, these dynamics can play out at the team level or between the organization’s leaders and other stakeholders (e.g., the board, regulatory groups, etc.). The key is to unfear each part of the organization. As the company breaks free of these archetypes, it can unlock higher levels of performance and well-being.

It’s important to remember that teams and organizations that live in the fear archetypes are not bad people or systems and that they do not have bad intentions. Deep down, we all see ourselves as having positive values and wanting good things for ourselves and others. But we’re often working with a complicated and often invisible relationship with our fears. Some of these unhealthy associations are cultural. Eastern cultures, like the one Gaurav comes from, tend to value tradition and community and are therefore more Passive/Defensive on average than Western cultures. Western cultures, like Mark’s, value individuality and can be more Aggressive/Defensive. Even within the United States, though, you can see regional differences between, say, the Midwest and the Northeast in these behavioral tendencies. And some differences are industry based. For example, consultancies tend to be more Fault Finding as a general rule, sales organizations lean toward the Competitors, and government agencies skew toward Stickler tendencies. Many differences are simply based on our individual and collective stories of what we think of as strong leadership, high-performing teams, and effective organizations.

You may have recognized yourself, your team, and your organization in these archetypes. You may even have begun to understand the stories you tell yourself that keep you locked in these patterns of behavior. When we don’t understand how these operate, it can feel like we are powerless. The dysfunctional traits of all these archetypes seem like the only options available to us. But in unfear reframing, you can choose a new role for each situation as it comes up. In the chapters that follow, we will give you practical advice on how you can use imagination and language to create new levels of effectiveness.

Worth Thinking About

  • Which of the eight fear archetypes or behavioral patterns do you tend to express? What about your team? Your organization?
  • What do these patterns reveal about your values and priorities? What do they reveal about your fears and the stories you hold about them?
  • How are these behavioral patterns and stories serving you? Your team? Your organization?