When Your Co-Worker Loses It

One study indicates one out of six U.S. workers has experienced bullying or aggressive behavior in the workplace. This behavior can take many forms: angry outbursts, tantrums, curses or — in the worst extreme — threats or physical assault.

How do you de-escalate someone in the middle of a workplace emotional meltdown? Last week’s column defined this condition as the “amygdala hijack” — a result of the reptilian part of the brain (your inner lizard) taking over in a fight-or-flight response.

There are a number of things you can do when confronted with a boss or co-worker who is emotionally out of control (and the person you have come to know and respect is nowhere to be found). Handled poorly, these situations can be disastrous. In contrast, if handled well, workplace relationships often improve.

There are many tools, techniques and skill sets to help organizations deal with the stress and emotional difficulty in today’s workplace. Here are a few suggestions to consider when you find yourself face to face with someone else’s lizard.


Establish and maintain boundaries. Get clear about your boundaries; understand when enough is enough. Be prepared to state “this is not acceptable” clearly and unemotionally. Assert your right to be treated with respect (regardless of your position). Seek out human resources or legal counsel if there is a continuing problem or you have been threatened. Physical or emotional threats or abuse should never be tolerated.

Employ active listening. Another way to defuse an emotionally charged interaction is to repeat or paraphrase what you heard the other party say. This demonstrates that you are listening and taking in their concerns. Example: “I heard you say you are upset about what happened during the meeting,” or, “Clearly, you are very annoyed by my lateness.” Active listening does not mean you agree with them; it’s simply demonstrating you heard their point of view.

Be self-aware. Be acutely aware of your own emotions during difficult or emotionally charged situations. Emotional clarity and understanding of your primary “reactive” tendencies (and modifying them as required) can help you make a different behavioral choice that will directly affect the final outcome of the interaction.

Acknowledge the out-of-control person’s feelings. Show genuine concern. If they believe they have been heard and acknowledged, they likely will de-escalate. You can often defuse their reactivity by empathizing with them.

Remain calm. Talk them down by softening your own tone.

Take a time-out. Reasonable discussions are not possible when you are emotionally distressed. The amygdala is your brain’s alarm system. When it hits the panic button, cortisol hormones surge through the body and often last for hours. Advocate a break to let things calm down: “Let’s talk about this later. We’re too emotional to talk about this right now.” When your lizard is running the show, your higher brain isn’t functioning. Lizards typically do not make profound or intellectually sound decisions.


Engage the opposing lizard at the lizard level. Make the choice not to get reactive. Be aware of your own potential for your emotional lizard to get triggered. Two battling lizards aren’t pretty; it usually results in at least one of them losing its tail!

Threaten. Avoid the tendency to retaliate or strike back when emotionally charged. Avoid making judgments or name calling, no matter how tempting.

Use defensive or hostile body language (eye rolling, raised eyebrows, etc). This indicates disrespect and will only inflame and/or escalate a bad situation.

Take it personally. An out-of-control lizard isn’t about you. Feedback is information, not definition. How they are reacting says a lot more about them than it does about you. Don’t tie your self-worth into someone else’s lack of control and emotional intelligence.

Title, position and authority are not entitlement to aggressive, hostile or threatening behavior. Companies can’t afford to tolerate this kind of behavior. Inappropriate behaviors need to be documented and reported to human resources. You have rights. Do not allow them to be violated. If they are violated and things don’t change, leave the position and/or seek legal recourse.

Invest in yourself by hiring me as your coach! I can help you learn, develop and grow your leadership and emotional intelligence abilities.  I coach leaders all over the world via Skype.  Call me:  360 682 5807 or email: mmoriarty@pathtochange.com

7 Tips To Handle a Difficult Co-worker

I received a number of requests from readers after last week’s column for a follow-up column on how to deal with a difficult co-worker.

First, we can all be “difficult” from time to time. It’s part of being human. Second, there will always be “difficult” co-workers. I coach people who have traded one job (and its problem “co-worker” or boss) only to find another difficult person at the next job. By the way, this may be a sign it’s more about you than them. Workplace success depends on being able to address conflict/challenge effectively and professionally.

Though no two situations are alike, most of these scenarios share a common factor — they make us anxious and/or uncomfortable. The solution depends on being able to work through the anxiety, and though there are myriad variables, here are some options to consider:

  1. First, get a reality check. Find a trusted co-worker or professional coach to help you sort through this objectively. Family members or friends who faithfully take your side may not be objective (or particularly helpful). Explore your piece of the “problem” equation. Did this person push one of your hot buttons? Is there a pattern here that you have experienced before with other co-workers? Is it possible you may be overreacting or even “projecting” what you don’t want to own in yourself on this “problem” person?
  2. Having figured out this situation is not about you, take courage and address it. These situations rarely get better without taking some kind of action. Walk through your own discomfort (there is probably learning in this for you) and deal with it directly. Arrange for a face-to-face meeting with the “problem” person. In many cases, talking it out can clear the air and even improve a strained relationship (depending on the delivery). Have a practice run for this meeting with someone who can coach you to use the right language and work through your potential reactivity. You’ll want to go into this meeting clear about your “talking points.”
  3. Be professional, courteous and respectful. Give this person straightforward feedback about how their behavior (not them personally) is affecting you in language that can’t be misunderstood. It’s quite possible they have no idea that their behavior is causing a problem for you. Enlighten them using “I” statements (“I feel disrespected when … “). Let them know your expectation for changed behavior and what you plan to do if the behavior continues (i.e., contact human resources or their boss, etc).
  4. Keep your composure. These conversations won’t go well if you can’t control your emotional behavior and reactivity. If they get reactive and yell, a) resist the urge to yell back, and b) try, “I can’t think with your voice raised. I’ll come back when you’ve had time to calm down.”

If the problem continues, additional options:

  1. Take it up. Go to his or her boss or yours with clear documentation regarding the specific incidents and offending behavior. Identify specifically the problem behavior and the effects on you or workplace performance. Let the boss know of your efforts to resolve the situation with the person directly (most bosses will want you to have first tried to resolve the situation yourself before bringing it to them). Ask for help. Explore the possibility that there has been a failure on the part of management to clarify roles, objectives and expectations that can underlie the root cause for the friction. Frankly, in my consultant role, I often find this is the case.
  2. There is strength in numbers. If other people have also experienced this person’s poor behavior, go together to see HR or top management. Fair warning: I hear from many workers who claim they go to HR and get no satisfaction. Candidly, though most have great intentions, HR personnel are often there to serve management and to protect the company.
  3. If you believe you are being bullied or abused, name it for what it is (“I’m being abused”) and then seek help (workplacebullying.org, HR, top management, doctors, attorneys, etc). If your health is at risk, see a doctor to get help and legal documentation of your stress. Depending on the price you are paying, you may need to find a new job or, in a larger company, ask to be transferred.

For the long term:

Develop skills to deal with conflict effectively and work on developing your personal authority and assertiveness. Conflict is a natural part of the workplace. Believe me, it’s impossible to avoid “differences” at work! Get some training or coaching to enhance your ability to deliver effective feedback and develop conflict resolution skills you can rely on.

Invest in yourself by hiring me as your coach! I can help you learn, develop and grow your leadership and emotional intelligence abilities.  I coach leaders all over the world via Skype.  Call me:  360 682 5807 or email: mmoriarty@pathtochange.com