Protest Behavior

Chris J Terrell
5 min readJun 30, 2022
Photo by Hello I'm Nik on Unsplash

Have you ever started looking for a new car? Then you find one you want only to start seeing them everywhere. This post is like that but from my counselor.

Missing Connection leads to Protest Behavior.

My counselor shared an excellent book about how we connect as humans. Attached is a great book, and I highly recommend it to anyone looking to improve relationships.


Is there a science to love? In this groundbreaking book, psychiatrist and neuroscientist Amir Levine and psychologist Rachel S. F. Hell…

GoodreadsAmir Levine

One of the concepts in the book is when we feel disconnected, we may act out in ways that may not seem appropriate if we take a snapshot in time.

The video below is an experiment of a baby acting out. If you just looked at the baby crying in this video as an isolated event, you might think the baby is a brat, but if you rewind it a little, you see a fuller picture of the baby wanting to connect with her mom.

I See Protest Behavior

I started seeing protest behavior everywhere. I saw it in my marriage, with my kids, in meetings, on social media, instant messages, texts, and emails at work. I would love to say I saw it in myself, but that took time. Slowly I started to see it in me. It was like the famous line in “The Sixth Sense,” but with Protest vs. Dead People. Great movie if you haven’t seen it.

Me — I see Protest Behavior all the time.
Bruce Willis — Only in your personal relationships
Me — (Shake head No)
Bruce Willis — While you are at Work?
Me — (Head nods)
Bruse Willis — Protest Behavior at home and at work?
Me — Protest behavior by regular people. They don’t know they are Protesting. They think they are acting rational and clearly communicating. They don’t know they are acting out
Bruce Willis — How often do people Protest?
Me — ALL THE TIME. It happens everywhere

Work Protests

I started seeing protest behavior at work, and I noticed the subtle ways it was being expressed. What I saw at home was obvious, but at work, it was different. It was sometimes loud and unfiltered at home, and other times it was silent stonewalling. I noticed that work protest behaviors were filtered through a protective lens. Work protest behavior is seen in subtle nonverbal clues. It was the verbal tone, body language, sarcastic gifs, or not turning your camera on in zoom meetings. Sure sometimes these were nothing but other times, they exposed something deeper.

Protest Examples

  • A lack of focus caused by a lack of clarity of expectations AND not asking for clarity
  • Being preoccupied with thoughts of failing or missing expectations. This question to ask yourself and also look for inside conversations with peers
  • Aggressively proving yourself or becoming easily defensive
  • Constantly criticizing your work for too long
  • Keeping score and making sure your “rightness” is better than others
  • Shutting down and not getting help
  • Blaming instead of stating what happened
  • Getting angry or overly emotional
  • Not dealing with issues or ghosting colleagues
  • Not having a boundary of where your responsibility ends

When I viewed these through the baby video lens, it became apparent that these triggered something deeper. These outbursts are “normal” if the person expressing them feels like they are alone or on an island.

Protest Triggers

I apologize for the list above because you might start seeing these behaviors everywhere, like me. After noticing these, I wanted to know what was causing them because the behaviors were not the cause but the caused by a deeper issue.

Triggers List

  • Not being heard
  • Not feeling like it is okay to fail
  • Boundaries that can’t be met or lack Boundaries
  • Not having the tools or knowledge to do what is asked
  • Being asked to do work consistently in an area of weakness
  • Not knowing what is expected
  • Being unclear on who has the authority to say “Yes” or “No.”
  • Not feeling safe

Before we move on to what to do with protest behavior, ask yourself how you handle these triggers above. For example, did your blood pressure rise, were you flooded with past experiences where you were set up to fail. Next time you see a peer act out at work, remember you have been there.

Protest Busters

Attachment Theory has three different styles, and they provide a window into how to bust protest behaviors, anxious attachment, avoidant attachment, and security. Protest behavior comes from the anxious and avoidant. In contrast, the secure attachment style acts to calm these behaviors. We all have bits of each style and tend to lean toward a dominant style. The key to overcoming the protest behavior is approaching it from a place of security and getting to the root. It is essential to come from a place of security.

Remember, the behavior doesn’t explain the problem, and they might not even know what the problem is.

Busting Actions

  • Say, “This is a safe place” before you ask any questions
  • Ask what is going on in a one-on-one. Then ask, “What is going on?” This second question is crucial because it breaks through the filtered communication
  • Ask if they have access to the right tools or people if you get stuck
  • Have you done this before? If not, they will protest because they feel like they are being set up to fail. If they are capable, look for other root causes
  • Find out the appropriate boundaries and responsibilities. If the boundaries aren’t clear, clear them up. If they are taking more responsibility than their authority, find the person that has the authority to make a decision
  • Provide as much safety as possible.

I hope this helps you have more empathy with your peers and get to the root causes of issues. Above I mentioned that it took a while to see my protest behavior. My protest behavior comes out in two ways defensiveness and disassociation. I have gained some wisdom throughout my career because my protest behavior got me into a lot of trouble in my 20’s. I hope this post saves you some heartache.