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Handling Emotionally Explosive People in the Workplace (Even Myself)

You are sitting in a meeting, dreading agenda item 3 – deadline status. ‘Bob,’ your manager, is in the meeting and you know he is going to ‘explode.’ That’s who he is. Tiny beads of sweat start running down the back of your neck.
You walk to the front of the room, ready to present your status. As you are about to open your mouth, Bob shouts from across the room, “Please tell me we are on track for making this deadline?”
Stuttering you say, “Bbbbbob, we have ennnncountttered aaaaaaaa few prrrrrrroblems.”
Bob is like a Tiger onto wounded prey.
“I am sick and tired of excuses. That’s all I seem to get from you lot these days. Excuses and more excuses. When will someone get something right around here?”
The room goes deadly silent….
The Workplace Bully
Bob is a bully. He may be your manager but he is a bully. The way he deals with people and situations is irrational and demeaning. This happens in nearly every work environment and at different levels. People become irrational and abusive when things don’t go their way.
So what is really going on with people who behave like this and how can they counter it?
Bob decides to change
Bob has been getting coaching for his behaviour. His Director has pointed out that he cannot continue to behave like this, given that he has 3 grievances against him. Bob cannot afford to lose his job and has decided its time to change.
His coach has been working with him around his reactive state and what is driving it. With a little help from Neuroscience, Bob is starting to understand how his brain works and what he can do to manage these types of situations better.
Neuroscience and Bobs Brain
Bob has started to understand that his Pre-fontal cortex (PFC) is responsible for executive functioning, namely: Choosing what to pay attention to / focusing / making choices / problem solving / tolerating something unpleasant & overriding fear reactions from other parts of the brain.
He has also discovered that his PFC has limitations such as it can only focus on one thing at a time, it has limited capacity, it gets tired easily and appears to be lazy. This has taught him that when he feels overloaded and tired his rational brain shuts down, he loses focus and he becomes reactive. This is why he has been blowing up and behaving irrationally.
What contributes to him being so tired? His coach pointed out that Neuroscience shows our PFC needs rest, exercise and healthy foods to work at its optimum. Bob has had many late nights and has been eating junk food. He has missed gym for the past 6 months and is living an unhealthy and unbalanced lifestyle. No wonder his PFC is so drained.
Bob’s Limbic system
When Bob’s brain is tired his Limbic system takes over. This part of his brain is responsible for emotional reactions. Through coaching he realised that he was ‘going limbic’ with his people and the impact was that it was breaking down relationships and stopping people from engaging with him around issues before they became problems.
Bob discovered that when he became reactive his brain pumped cortisol into his body and this reduced his capacity to be focused. It also made his hair grey as cortisol is known as the ageing hormone. His limbic system was also causing his people to be stressed and their capacity to be focused was limited. He needed to change his habitual way of reacting.
Overcoming Limbic Reactions
Bob’s coach taught him a simple technique to deal with these reactive outbursts. Bob needed to learn self-management and the tools he practiced using discipline shifted him into a place where he was more curious versus reactive.
The steps he learnt to manage his reactive state are:
Label – he learnt to notice when he was starting to react, and then label his emotion. He would say to himself, “I am angry at the fact that another deadline is being missed.” This had the impact of shifting focus onto his PFC, which manages his emotional state.
Re-appraise – He practiced being curious and seeing other perspectives. He asked himself a simple question in these situations, “How can I see this differently?” This allowed him to see his colleagues and direct reports perspectives. This didn’t mean he accepted missed deadlines. It allowed him to be more controlled and effective around managing these situations.
Mindfulness – Bob learnt to practice mindfulness. He started noticing his thoughts in the moment and just let them be. Over time this had the impact of growing his PFC capacity as it gave him ‘brain space.’

Desire to change
Bob had a desire to change. Many people in the workplace don’t want to change, and in fact feel justified in behaving this way. The impact is felt by everyone. People react to this behaviour by going silent and switching off (or leaving) or violent and lashing out. Notice this in yourself.
We cannot control others, only ourselves. The steps Bob learnt are applicable to all of us. With self-awareness, self-management and discipline to practice the recovery steps, we can shift our reactive states and change the way we experience being bullied or being the bully.
If this article peaks your interest I am keen to have a conversation with you as to how I can work with you and your teams around generating results more effectively. Send me an email – details below.

Stephen Light is a Leadership Expert & Executive Coach who uses Neuroscience as a platform for being more effective at understanding and changing self. He assist leaders in finding more effective ways of leading people through changes resulting in the objectives of teams being met.

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