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Managing Emotions at the Workplace (1): Why do we get emotionally hijacked?

Posted in Communication skills,Managing our emotions by Rashmi Datt on March 11th, 2012

Communication at the workplace (particularly with the boss) is as important as lubricant for our car engine. Without it our career will sputter and stall, and work life will be full of breakdowns and headaches. In quiz, you saw a few situations, which if not clarified, have the potential to worsen our irritation with time.  They need to be addressed calmly and reasonably without rubbing the boss the wrong way, yet getting our point across.

What are some of these typical work situations? When we need to:

  1. Present an idea or suggestion
  2. Clarify expectations and goals
  3. Make a request or ask for resources
  4. Disagree with the boss
  5. Bring up any other difficult or sensitive issue bothering you.

 Why do we tend to stay quiet and push things under the rug?

There are several reasons why many of us choose not to speak up:

We expect the boss to be a mind reader

We tend to overlook a simple out obvious fact – the boss does not have a silicone chip in his brain, which can beam into ours and read our mind! We mistakenly assume that what is obvious to us should be obvious to him as well.

  •  “Isn’t it his responsibility to give clear instructions and guidelines when he delegates a task to me? He should know with my two years’ experience I need more hand holding…”
  • “Isn’t it obvious that we need XY equipment before this project can be completed?”
  •  “ If the boss is not doing anything about it, it means he can’t or won’t”.

However unless you tell him about your ideas, challenges, problems, yes, even achievements, we will be working with shadows of assumptions – “I imagine the boss knows.”

We operate from an unquestioned assumption “I have no choice”

Sometimes it doesn’t even occur to us that we can speak up – in a frank and respectful manner. For one, there is an apprehension “Even if I speak, how do I handle the communication? I’m positive I’ll mess it up.” The fear could be based on a past negative experience with the same or a different boss, who growled at you or who never seemed to have the time to talk to you. It could also be based on assumptions: It will be considered improper to speak up. I will be misunderstood. There will be negative repercussions later.

We are afraid of accountability

Another reason is a fear to take the steering wheel of our lives in our own hands. To own responsibility means to admit that mistakes and failures (of not delivering, or missed promotion, or poor relationship with boss) have been contributed at least in part by me. It requires courage to accept it, and then a huge effort to rectify matters. Isn’t it easier to just close our eyes and take the support of a comforting pillow of laying blame on externals like… bad luck, office politics, inconsiderate boss, downturn in the economy, poor job market. …

What is passive behaviour?

A passive or submissive response is when people:

  • Don’t speak up even when something is bothering them;
  • Allow the problem gnaw and eat away their insides even as they fret and fume;
  • Let themselves be pushed –they don’t check back on whether deadlines or project requirements can be negotiated or worked out;
  • Assume others’ rights are more important than their own (“Who am I to say anything to the boss?”);
  • Want to avoid conflict at all costs;
  • Don’t honestly acknowledge their own needs and feelings

The passive style is adopted because we are brought up on a diet of don’ts: Don’t complain; Don’t make mistakes; Better let sleeping dogs lie, Don’t upset the apple cart; Don’t take risks; Don’t make others angry; Don’t question things. Obeying these rules avoids conflicts, but we pay a price – the price of reduced self – respect, personal unhappiness, and increased feelings of helplessness and lack of control.

Typical passive behaviours are:

  • Hesitation in contributing own ideas, which are believed not to be of much value (or expressing them in a timid or apologetic manner);
  • Having a constant hum of anxiety in the mind about too much work and pending assignments;
  • Body language consisting of:
    • Evasive eye contact (looking down at feet to avoid expressing feelings)
    • Fidgeting nervously
    • Hesitant, over soft voice, often dull and monotonous
    • Hunching shoulders, arms crossed for protection;
  • Use of tentative sounds/ phrases like “Uh Uh…”, throat clearing, “Hmmm…”, “sort of”, as well as expressions which convey diffidence like “Its not important really…” “It doesn’t matter…”

What is aggressive behaviour?

Aggressive behaviour is when people at the work place

  • Are authoritarian and rarely listen to another point of view;
  • Rigidly stick to their views without compromise;
  • Push juniors into accepting impossible or unrealistic deadlines/ workloads;
  • Want their own way even if it means trampling on others;
  • Want a person or situation to be different from what it inherently is;
  • Express thoughts, feelings or beliefs in unacceptable and unsuitable ways with the belief they are right.emotional hijack

Typical aggressive behaviours are:

  • Putting others down (in front of colleagues), being condescending or showing disdain: “You must be joking”, “You must have been asleep when you prepared this…”
  • Blaming other people or outside factors “It was your fault..”,  “You said…”;
  • Manipulating to get own way;
  • Body language consisting of:
    • Staring or dominating eye contact;
    • Sarcastic, cold, hard tone which is very firm, often shouting;
    • Standing or striding around with head in air
    • Fist thumping and finger pointing
    • Eyebrows raised in incredulity or skepticism.

The aggressive style pushes people around without concern for their feelings. In the short term they get their own way, but in the long term nobody wants to be around them! It leaves others with feelings of being controlled, inadequate, embarrassed and losing power. Managers can lose respect of their subordinates, missing out on important ideas and information.  Another problem with aggressive behaviour is that it can also trigger an angry or hostile response from others, deteriorating the situation further. (So while aggressive behaviour is more commonly seen in the boss than the subordinate, occasionally a junior could react- by not following instructions or match rudeness for rudeness.)

A reactive reaction is an emotional hijack

Why is the Fight / Flight Response so common? 

Millions of years ago in prehistoric times, when man lived in caves and wilderness, to survive the aggression of beasts, humans and other elements, he had to attack back (fight) or hide and run (flight). Today, survival messages written in our genes haven’t been erased, and reaction patterns are the same when triggered by a situation creating anxiety. However this reactive reaction is no longer appropriate or helpful, and is called an emotional hijack. Man needs to teach himself to respond more rationally, to use his mind (and not his gut) to think, and then act. This is a proactive or assertive approach.

Next post: Communicating confidently with a tough boss.

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