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

Stop Workplace Conflicts

Workplaces today are stressful — tight deadlines, heavy workloads, high expectations of excellence combined with common realities of limited resources, inconsistent direction, team environments and interpersonal challenges. Conflict is inevitable.

While disruptions, creative differences and missed expectations are part of everyday work lives, it’s how conflict is dealt with that makes the difference between a healthy and dysfunctional workplace.

The pinch-crunch conflict model, developed by Jack Sherwood and John Glidewell, helps us understand the importance of resolving conflict while the issues are minor before they escalate into a full-blown feuds and battles. The model identifies the importance of sharing information and renegotiating expectations when pinches occur.

Too often, the reality is when we are “pinched” in the workplace, we fail to voice our concerns and choose to keep our thoughts and feelings to ourselves. We worry about rocking the boat or hurting others’ feelings or simply hope the behavior won’t continue.

In the meantime, the offending individual typically goes on offending, many times oblivious that their behavior has caused a problem.

Because the missed expectation has not been dealt with or communicated, the disappointing behavior continues and “pinches” accumulate. Frustration and resentment build, creating even more problems. Eventually these accumulated and unresolved pinches turn into “crunches,” full-blown, highly charged and potentially explosive situations resulting in managers asking, “How in the world did we get into this mess?”

Workplace crunches can end in explosive situations. Tensions, stakes and emotions have escalated. Unresolved crunches can result in lowered morale and performance, people giving up (resigned that the situation will never improve), hostile work environments and employee turnover.

It’s important to handle pinches before they turn into crunches. Waiting just makes them harder to resolve. If you find yourself in a workplace pinch, here are a few tips to consider:

  • Voice your concerns early, even over small disagreements, rather than waiting or avoiding addressing them.
  • Attempt to identify and address the real issue. Dig and be curious — you may have only the partial picture.
  • Focus on the problem behavior versus making it personal. Describe the behavior that you observed without your personal interpretations, judgments or assumptions.
  • Communicate your intentions, including the desire to improve your working relationship.
  • Negotiate expectations. Clarify and agree to each other’s role responsibilities.
  • Generate realistic options to meet established expectations.
  • Seek agreement on next steps.

Handling pinches effectively often results in increased trust, confidence and improved relationships. Workplace relationships and teams are strengthened when differences are dealt with successfully. Wise managers recognize that problems and conflict are a part of the workplace. They don’t assume that they won’t have any problems; they recognize it’s their job as a leader to deal with problems before they become disasters.

The challenge for managers is to create and maintain an environment that not only allows but encourages healthy conflict.

For this to be successful, they need to foster and support open dialogue and a process to allow pinches to be identified and resolved before turning into full-blown crunches.


These are common workplace “pinches”:

  • Unrealistic workplace expectations
  • Confusion over roles
  • Different standards for performance or behavior
  • Feeling unappreciated or taken for granted
  • Communication misunderstandings

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

Your Conflict Style -Learned At Early Age

Our ideas about how to influence and respond to authority are largely a result of what we learned as children through our family upbringing. As adults in the workplace, we tend to recreate and respond in the fashion we were taught in early childhood.

Recall a recent workplace conflict and the part you played — what did you do or say? Did you avoid, blame, yell or threaten, acquiesce, compromise or work out a win-win solution? Now compare this with the family “rules” around conflict you learned as a child. Most people can recognize that their workplace conflict pattern stems from their family of origin.

We bring these lessons and patterns with us into the workplace. The first group we ever belonged to was our family. Our parents were our first “bosses.” How we relate and respond to a workplace “boss” is largely habituated from our own parental experiences. Common struggles with workplace power and authority (asking for a raise or challenging your boss) are likely connected to early childhood “interpretations” and experiences with authority. For example, some grew up with the message that it was not OK to challenge authority, with strong parental messages like, “Do what I say,” or, “You can sit there all night until those peas are gone!” or, “Don’t argue with me!” As adults, they may be reticent to tell the boss bad news, ask for what they want, disagree or give challenging feedback. As children, they learned it wasn’t OK to challenge authority.

Most bosses (and businesses) would benefit greatly by hearing what’s really going on from people in their workplaces. Yet few get this kind of honest feedback. Bosses need to ask for feedback (and not shoot the messenger!) and work to establish trust with their people.

In terms of how we manage conflict, the truth is most of us go through life reacting unconsciously. To change how you manage conflict, you must first be aware of your patterns and tendencies.

In moments of anxiety, stress or fear, a highly automatic emotional reaction (triggered by the reptilian part of our brain) often overpowers rational thinking. Our brains release a hormone to signal danger (fight or flight). This served our ancestors well for survival in saber-tooth territory, but can be a hindrance in today’s workplace.

Additionally, our brains are “hard-wired” for how we react emotionally — our early childhood experiences determine how neural pathways are established. As adults, we react emotionally when something happens that causes these childhood neural pathways to “fire.” For example, if as a baby you experienced a parent as loud and frightening, you likely react with a conditioned fear response to a boss yelling. Perhaps you got the message as a child you were never “good enough;” then you may have intense reactions of sadness or anger when you hear disapproval in the workplace.

Have you ever been surprised at the intensity of someone’s reaction to something you said — “Whoa, where did that reaction come from?” The stronger the emotional reaction, the more likely their interpretation of the situation is coming from their past.

Most want to blame others for their reactions, as in, “You made me mad,” or, “He pushes my buttons.” The truth is, we push our own buttons. Nobody makes us feel anything.

Most of us react to words or behaviors of others that get under our skin. For the sake of future workplace relationships and your career, identify and learn to recognize your hot buttons.

The primary reason for career derailment is a lack of emotional intelligence. The good news: It is possible to rewire your brain’s neural firing patterns. The bad news: It isn’t easy. It takes great attention, support and practice to learn to rewire new behaviors.


  • Be aware of your emotional patterns.
  • Understand that we co-create what’s working and not working with others.
  • Identify what you are feeling (feelings inform you about the importance and meaning of a situation) and then choose your behavior. Recent brain-scan research indicates that naming your feeling when upset (either to yourself or out loud) can get you out of “lizard” mode and back into prefrontal cortex thinking mode (where your odds of successful resolution are greatly enhanced).
  • Get help — hire a coach or get training in conflict resolution and interpersonal practices.

Notice when you slip into your childhood emotional state, then choose to behave as a grownup.

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

Unhealthy Conflict Hurts Workers and Business

Unresolved workplace conflict is stressful for participants, their bosses and everyone in close proximity. Yet conflict is a common workplace reality — as human beings we naturally have different values, points of view or ways of communicating.

Most of us don’t choose our co-workers (anymore than we choose our annoying relatives), yet success in today’s team environment requires us to find a way to resolve differences.

Let’s start by making the distinction between healthy and unhealthy conflict. Healthy debate on workplace teams often leads to better strategy and decisions and should be encouraged. Being accountable on a team may mean that others will challenge you to do a better job or follow through on a commitment — these are not reasons to head for the human resources department. Unhealthy conflict is very different — it interferes with people’s ability to do their work successfully and, in the extremes, involves harmful or abusive behaviors.

The challenge for most managers is knowing when and how to intervene. Avoiding it won’t solve anything. Unresolved conflict just festers and resurfaces. In extreme cases, managers need to draw a well-defined boundary and lay out consequences for unacceptable behaviors. Individuals who contribute to a hostile work environment must be dealt with swiftly and decisively. As the boss, it is your responsibility to establish an environment that enables your people to be successful. Any kind of negative escalating conflict that is disruptive to the work environment warrants an intervention.

Most successful interventions involve bringing the parties together with a mediator to discuss and commit to making the changes necessary to resolve the conflict.

Here are some intervention guidelines in resolving unhealthy conflict.

  • Start by establishing ground rules for acceptable behavior such as:

One person speak at a time. Speak for yourself and not for others. No personal attacks or put-downs.

  • Allow each an opportunity to share their stories so each understands the other’s experience. There are two sides to every story — none of us views the same event, interaction or situation in exactly the same way. Encourage both parties to identify what is theirs to “own” in the conflict (i.e., How did they contribute to the situation?)
  • Clarify job descriptions, roles and behavior expectations. Often the source of workplace conflict is overlapping or misunderstood roles or “turf.” Establish single-point (one-person) accountability for responsibilities, tasks and results. A common denominator for most workplace conflict is disagreement around “shared” expectations — some version of, “That is your responsibility, not mine,” or, “If you would only do your job!” This typical turf war is often the result of a gap between what one participant believes should be and what he or she perceives is being delivered (or not) by the other. Bosses often need to clarify turf and responsibilities to help close that gap. Get participants clear on whose responsibility is what by when.
  • Ask participants to identify what specific actions they would like from the other to resolve the disagreement. For example: “I would like responsibility for all client communication,” or, “I want Joe to submit his report to me by 5 p.m. each Friday.” A tip: Help them identify what they want more of, less of, stopped or started.
  • Create accountability for a plan to move forward. Participants should walk away with shared (preferably written) agreement about who will be responsible for what in the future. Plan to meet again to check on how things are working.

If you aren’t comfortable attempting this kind of mediation or if the conflict has gone on a long time and/or the stakes and emotions are high, it may be time to bring in someone like me as outside help — someone with conflict resolution expertise who can serve as an objective third party and with nothing vested in the outcome of the conflict. Outside experts are often successful where internal resources fail (human resources people are not often seen as being impartial) to bring real or sustained changes.

Expert facilitators, like me, can help:

  • Identify and clarify the “real” issues.
  • Regulate the conflict with a process that brings order and safety to participants.
  • Interrupt a frequently escalating cycle.
  • Help participants develop new and effective behaviors for handling differences moving forward.

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

Conflict Avoidance is Bad Management

Conflict is a natural element of high-performing workplace teams. When conflict is managed well, it can be a highly effective means of identifying and resolving tough workplace challenges, often resulting in improved relationships and solutions. Avoiding conflict, discouraging it or allowing chronic unhealthy conflict to remain unresolved can be disastrous to organizational health. There are human and financial costs to conflict avoidance.

Organizations lose countless dollars each year to unresolved conflict in lost productivity, performance, employee turnover and absenteeism. Lost opportunity costs include the improvement or solution that might have resulted from creative collaboration (versus black holes that emerge when employees refuse to deal with each other). Morale also is affected — not only between participants but among people around them. People who are embroiled in conflict often are under great stress. Many report not sleeping well and being unable to focus at work.

Other costs to unresolved conflict:

  • Miscommunication resulting from confusion or refusal to cooperate,
  • Quality problems.
  • Missed deadlines or delays.
  • Increased stress among employees
  • Reduced creative collaboration and team problem solving.
  • Disruption to work flow.
  • Decreased customer satisfaction.
  • Distrust.
  • Split camps
  • Gossip.

As a manager or leader, if you are avoiding conflict, you aren’t alone. The majority of my clients are in the conflict-avoidance camp. Managing conflict effectively is daunting for even the most seasoned leaders. Unfortunately, for many managers, their answer is to avoid it, even if it means that the challenge or situation is allowed to fester at the expense of the organization.

In today’s team environment, healthy debate and difference is vital. It’s a necessary element of discovery and generating creative solutions to complex problems. Unfortunately the debate process can be uncomfortable for many people. We all have different comfort levels with conflict. Some easily get emotionally reactive, others quietly stew and others bow to the bullies — or those with internal political clout — in the room. Most of us learned how to fight fairly (or not) from our parents. A lucky few had great parental role models for conflict resolution and have the skills to foster collaboration and win-win scenarios. Most of us have to learn new strategies to convert workplace conflict into positive outcomes.

Personal experiences and learned behaviors establish our primary response toward conflict. To work through conflict effectively, start by identifying feelings. The potential for unprofessional reactions to workplace conflict results when we allow our emotions to rule us versus letting our emotions inform us. Being aware of your feelings is a good thing; emotions help us determine the importance of a situation. The danger is when individuals allow their extreme emotional reactions to drive their behavior. Being aware of one’s natural reactive tendency and being able to deploy self-soothing strategies can go a long way toward reducing emotional reactivity.

Teaching employees practical tools for dealing effectively with conflict, disagreement and difference is smart business. Many managers have never learned effective conflict-resolution tools and find great benefit from skill development and training in this area.

There are many useful approaches to dealing with workplace conflict that can be taught — through training, skilled intervention and mentoring and coaching.

But what if you are dealing with a truly difficult situation or are stuck in a conflict you just can’t seem to resolve?

First, acknowledge the conflict honestly. Just how damaging is the conflict? Identify costs, both realized and opportunity costs. Remember as the boss, you get what you tolerate. How far are you willing to let this go? For effective conflict resolution, the boss will need to play a critical role in establishing organizational expectations, including behavioral boundaries and consequences of meeting (or not meeting) those expectations.

Effective leaders create an environment that allows open and constructive exploration of conflict issues and avoid the “he said, she said” tendency. While some leaders have exceptional skill in managing through highly conflicted scenarios, others do not. In this case bringing in outside help can bring much-needed relief and resolution.

We all need help and support from time to time. Just like you call in a plumber for a stopped-up drain — there are specialist resources and conflict facilitators that will help in highly charged conflict scenarios.

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