Toxic Workplace? The 4 Goals of Misbehavior: revenge, power, attention, helplessness.

Is your workplace TOXIC?
Problems with the boss?
Problems with coworkers?

Just don't understand, why they do what they do?

Most people leave jobs or are fired because of unresolved, interpersonal conflict with a boss or coworkers!  Learn about Adler's theory about the goals of misbehavior. Read on…
Contrary to popular belief, money is not the main reason for leaving a job. We have all stayed in jobs, which didn’t pay much, but in which we were happy. Conversely, many of us have left high paying jobs, for lesser paying jobs due to interpersonal conflicts and politics. Learn how to increase your happiness at work and open communication channels.

When I sought out a Graduate Degree in Counseling Psychology, my main criterion was finding a school whose basic philosophy and paradigm, fit for me. I attended the Adler University in Chicago, Illinois.

 Alfred Adler's life and history and Social Responsibility.
 Note: these principles were developed close to a hundred years ago, well before Social Responsibility was trendy. He posited that all human problems were essentially problems related to group dynamics. Further, that all ‘neuroses,’ mental illness, agitation and unhappiness were due to a feeling of being an outsider; not belonging to a family, group, work, society etc. Thus, when counseling individuals, as an Adlerian Psychologist, I look at their family of origin, culture, place of birth, community, language, ethnicity and country. Understanding the larger context, is the best way to understand and help the individual.

In my Graduate Course on Classroom Management, I learned about the "4 Goals of Misbehavior" However, these goals don't just apply to children. Each of us knows adults who fit into one of these 4 patterns of misbehavior. Sometimes, it is us!

According to Adlerian Psychologists all behavior is purposeful and goal directed.

People compete for uniqueness. If they can't attain uniqueness in socially constructive ways they will seek to attain it in other ways." This can occur in the classroom, in the family of origin, or in the workplace, since the same dynamics are at play. (l)Bishop, B.: Mutual Respect Psychology. Armidale University Press, Armidale, 1980.

If people do not feel that they are capable, competent and can connect with others, they may “misbehave.” When people do not achieve self worth and belonging by obeying the rules and expectations of society, they choose other behaviors to attain these goals. Identify  your feelings to determine which misbehavior is occuring. Your feelings will lead back to the goal. The Goal will inform how you should respond. Goals are often unconscious, and we may not know what is driving our behavior, so reflection is advised.

4 Goals of Misbehavior

1. Goal of Attention 
Person: "I count only when I am being noticed or served. "The  person feels he or she only belongs as long as the leader is prepared to pay attention to them. Attention seekers dread being ignored.
Example:  Noisy during meetings, taps a pencil, shuffles papers, sighs loudly. Always jumps into others' conversations, hangs out at the water-cooler looking for attention. Wears flamboyant clothes. Speaks in a loud or overly dramatic manner, even when it isn't called for.
You will feel:  Annoyed; you'll want to remind or coax others.
Person: They will temporarily stop the behavior, when given attention. Soon, they will resume the behavior or begin a  new attention-seeking behavior.
Solution/response: Give them attention for positive behavior, when they aren't expecting it. Never give attention on demand. Ignore attention-seeking behaviors.

2.Goal of Power
Person: "I  count only when I am dominating. I can do whatever I want. Only feels worthwhile if she or he is being boss and controlling everybody. Proves their importance by refusing to do anything you want.
Example: Aggressive - will say no to projects, before they have even heard all the details. Passive Aggressive, drags their feet, smiles but doesn't perform their share of team work. Delays sharing information with others or hoards contacts and information. Suspicious or overly jealous.
You will feel:  Provoked, angry. I won't let them get away with this! l will make him/her do it! You can't get away with it.
Person: Intensifies power-seeking behavior when reprimanded. Wants to win even more, becomes defiant.
Solution/Response: Do not engage in the conflict. Withdraw from conflict; act, rather than talk. Walk away.
Be friendly instead. Establish equality; redirect employees’ efforts into constructive channels.

3. Goal of Revenge
Person "I can't be liked. I don't have power. l will count if I can hurt others as I feel hurt by life. Person may revert to revenge after a failed, power play (IE: passed over for a key project or promotion).
Example: Sabotages others' efforts overly or covertly. Rejects all compliments or encouragement and views this with suspicion. Provokes hostility in their voice, tone, facial expression, body language etc...
You will feel: Hurt. How can he/she do this to me?
Person: Wants to get even. Makes self disliked. Seeks further revenge.
Solution/Response: Avoid retaliation or punishment. Take time and effort to help them. Rebuild trust and the relationship.

4. Goal - Display of Inadequacy
Person: I can't do anything right so I won't try to do anything at all. May be a perfectionist, fear of failure. See themselves as incompetent. They are deeply discouraged, and no longer hope for any success or recognition at work or in life. Their sole purpose is to avoid further hurt, humiliation or frustration.
Example: View themselves as incompetent and inadequate. Put others in their service, by overemphasizing their lack of skills and abilities. Gets others to do their work. Hides behind a lack of ability, so that their real or imagined flaws will not be discovered.
You will feel: Despair, hopeless, discouraged. I give up.
Person: No reprimand, therefore no reaction. Feels there is no use in even trying. Passive, no improvement.
Solution/Response: Encourage any positive effort or behavior. Have faith in their ability, don't do it for them. Don't give up, pity or criticize. Be patient. Engage them in activities to build their confidence, success experiences.

Analyze your response to others’ misbehavior. Reflect on your own behavior and how it has contributed to the situation. Your coworker or boss's bad behavior, may not even be aimed at you as an individual. They may be angry at the company or the system or the world. Misbehavior, is simply a failed attempt to  belong and find self-worth. Try something new!

More resources and further reading
"Goals Of Misbehavior" Dinkmeyer, McKay, & Dinkmeyer. They have provided a table summarizing the goals of misbehavior.

Here’s a great resource for understanding the Goals of Misbehavior in a Classroom setting. It also includes many tips for both identifying the behavior and remediating the behavior.

If you view the workplace as a quasi-family or surrogate family, then look at this site’s suggestions for dealing with misbehavior. Substitute the words parent and child to coworker and boss.

Author: © 2008-present. All Rights Reserved - Sharon B. Cohen, MA, Counseling Psychology, CPRP. Licensed Counselor. Career Counselor and Career Transition Specialist.

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  1. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

  2. Imelda 3 months ago

    I just witnessed firsthand a speaker deal with the "Goal of Attention Seeking". The person in the audience was constantly saying things out loud and calling attention to herself. At some point she raised her hand and the speaker gave her the floor. She started talking about something unrelated to the topic at hand. The speaker interrupted her by asking her: What's your name? She answered and then he said: "Mary, you have a very nice energy, it lights up the room". From that point forward, she remained quiet and paid attention to the speaker.
    Peace Wonk5 3 months ago

    This is a very condensed article full of good ideas. I wish I had it handy when I was writing my ebook. However, your suggestion of:
    "Do not engage in the conflict." is easier said than done.

    Probably people really need to understand how much in jeopardy is their own evaluation under the passive aggressive shenanigans, in order to be able to plan a response. And then, what to do? the first response is anger at the hidden sabotage; then you need to calm down and learn how to control yourself in order not to engage! It takes a strong effort to go this way, but at least you know that you are doing something concrete to salvage your job and your self-esteem.
    S. Cohen (author) 1 month ago

    You are right, interpersonal communication is a life-long, learning process.

    The "4 goals of misbehavior" were first posted by Psychiatrist Alfred Adler who was a contemporary of Sigmund Freud. Adler used this concept to train educators in Classroom Management. I learned about this in Graduate School, but have adapted it to a business career context. This article is a tiny sample of a year-long, Psychology course.