A Foolproof Guide for Recognizing & Changing Patronizing Behavior

A Foolproof Guide for Recognizing & Changing Patronizing Behavior

Whether in your career or personal relationships, it is important to be mindful of how you are portraying yourself to others. We don’t always get to collaborate with people who have mastered the nuances of communication in the workplace, but we do have control of our own actions and behavior. Recognizing when you may be crossing the line into patronizing behavior will allow for you to maintain more positive relationships and stronger collaboration as mutual trust and respect produces willing cooperation.

What is ‘Patronizing?’

Patronizing is the act of appearing kind or helpful but betraying a feeling of superiority. This is a behavior to be avoided as it can make others feel like you look down on them. A subtle form of bullying, patronizing behavior in the workplace can take many forms including making belittling comments or more talking about people behind their backs. In order to avoid this behavior and make sure that you are taking positive steps to recognize when this is occurring your own life take the following precautions.

1. Be Mindful of your Body Language

Looking down on people is an instant way for you to be disliked or make people feel inferior to you. Studies suggest that 75 to 90% of what we say is nonverbal so it is incredible important to monitor your body language for the nonverbal cues you are giving off to others (Su, 2013). Keep your head and chin level and avoid impatient body language, such as loud sighs, eye-rolling, constantly looking at your watch or your phone, drumming your fingers, or yawning. Maintaining eye contact when someone is talking is a great way to make sure that you are portraying a manner of respect rather than patronizing tendencies.

Body Language

2. Choose your Words Carefully

Being mindful of your words can make a huge difference on how you come across. Check your vocabulary – how often are you using ‘actually’ and ‘just’ in the workplace? The use of ‘actually’ in the can imply that you are surprised, when paired with a reply to a coworker’s suggestion then it sounds like you are surprised that they came up with a good idea. Definitely not good.

3. Personas to Avoid

As fun as Tuesday night trivia is, no one likes a real-life Trivia King. When you know everything, it can come across very one sided in conversation, and more importantly, no one likes talking to a know it all. It is important to try and incorporate listening to what other people have to say and asking others for their input to promote teamwork and a sense of comradery.

Another persona to avoid is the steamroller. It is great to be able to maintain a lively conversation with anyone in the office, but it is another thing to have a one-sided conversation and stopping others from chiming in. Whether it’s in a team meeting or a one-on-one conversation being a conversational steamroller sends the message that whatever you have to say as far more important than what other people have to contribute. This will make people not want to work with you and will leave you struggling to get projects off of the ground as you will be forced to rely solely on your own skillset.

4. Empathy Vs. Egocentricity

One of the most repeated patronizing behaviors arises when a friend or co-worker discusses their problems with you. This sensitive topic can open up a couple of different patronizing behaviors. The first is when you “can’t relate.” When someone chooses to discuss sensitive information with you, especially a heart-wrenching issue, the last thing you want to say is, “Well, that’s never happened to me, …” In these moments it is important to show compassion and sympathy and try to find some kind of experience to make them feel understood and not isolated in what they are experiencing.

Another patronizing behavior that can arise from this situation is when you try to one up their problem or give unsolicited advice. It is important to ask permission to supply your friend or coworker with advice because you do not want to be forcing your opinions on them. Asking to supply the advice will give them the option to say no and, if they say yes, more likely to take your suggestion. On the contrary, if you attempt to equate your own experiences to the problem that they are facing–particularly when they aren’t at all relevant to your colleague’s situation–you will always come off as condescending.

5. Getting Multiple People Involved

A study done by Sarah J. Gervais & Theresa K. Vescio analyzed the effect of patronizing behavior and control on men and women’s performance in the workplace and found “that men and women could be patronized with less damaging effects if the features of the situation were changed” (Gervais, 2012). By being mindful of the situation of your workplace beyond your own experiences you can create a healthier environment for you and your colleagues.

The Gervais & Vescio study found patronizing behavior was particularly damaging when it came from a male leader in a masculine domain. Taking this into consideration, if this is the type of environment that you work in, it is important to “consider having employees receive feedback from multiple leaders. Even if women interacted with one patronizing leader, knowing that multiple leaders would be making decisions may help women to maintain control” (Gervais, 2012). Offering staff more than one leader to talk to can help eliminate patronizing behavior and produce a healthier, more collaborative environment.

Negative Effects of Patronizing Behavior

The Institute for Safe Medical Practices warns against the negative impacts of disrespectful behavior as it has been known to “chill communication and collaboration, undercut individual contributions, undermine staff morale, increase staff resignations and absenteeism, create an unhealthy or hostile work environment, and cause some to abandon their profession.” When patronizing behaviors are present a person’s ability to think clearly, make sound judgments, and speak up regarding questions or concerns is diminished. If not addressed and thwarted businesses will have an increased turnover rate,

Moreover, “disrespect causes the recipient to experience fear, anger, shame, confusion, uncertainty, isolation, self-doubt, depression, and a whole host of physical ailments such as insomnia, fatigue, nausea, and hypertension.” These negative attributes could become hazardous in the work place, especially for those who work in dangerous environments.


People act patronizing for different reasons, but usually it boils down to insecurity and/or arrogance. After reading through this article hopefully you feel better equipped to enter the workforce and become more aware of when you and others are exhibiting patronizing behavior. Everyone knows what it’s like to be around someone who just doesn’t make them feel great about themselves, do the rest of the organization a favor and actively work to not be that person and help to pour into others to foster a positive space for collaboration and communication.


“Disrespectful Behaviors: Their Impact, Why They Arise and Persist, and How to Address Them (Part II).” Institute For Safe Medication Practices, 24 Apr. 2014, www.ismp.org/resources/disrespectful-behaviors-their-impact-why-they-arise-and-persist-and-how-address-them-part.

Gervais, S.J., Vescio, T.K. The Effect of Patronizing Behavior and Control on Men and Women’s Performance in Stereotypically Masculine Domains. Sex Roles 66, 479–491 (2012). https://doi-org.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/10.1007/s11199-011-0115-1

Su, Amy Jen, and Muriel Maignan Wilkins. “Which Behaviors Must Leaders Avoid?” Harvard Business Review, 14 Dec. 2013, hbr.org/2013/05/which-behaviors-do-leaders-mos.

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