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Why do people behave badly at work?

Imagine you see someone behaving badly at work – Angry man with laptopmaybe doing something ethically questionable or taking their anger out on the trainee or not pulling their weight in a crisis. If you’re like most people, you’ll attribute that behaviour to some aspect of their character – he’s dishonest, she’s aggressive, they’re lazy and so on – unless you know them and like them and then you’ll say it’s ‘out of character’. The basic idea that behaviour is driven by character remains though.

If it’s us behaving badly, however, it’s different. We’re not like that, there were mitigating factors, we’re not proud of it, obviously but, to quote the (highly-recommended) Netflix series Bloodline “We’re not bad people, we just did a bad thing”. The reality is that everyone’s behaviour is driven by a complex mix of factors that are not all to do with our individual personalities or even our conscious choices. In this article, I’ll look at four drivers of behaviour which are not to do with the individual.

1. The strength of the situation

In a strong situation, the situation itself dictates how people behave so there is little scope for individual differences to play out. For example, it doesn’t matter how introverted or extroverted you are, if you’re part of a theatre audience you’re likely to sit quietly and watch the performance. If you don’t, it’ll be made clear to you pretty quickly that your behaviour is unacceptable. In a weaker situation, like a random day in the office, the situation does not constrain behaviour in the same way, so there is more scope for other factors to influence behaviour. Some work situations, such as formal presentations, are stronger than others. Ironically, people often worry about bad behaviour in strong situations – “Will someone show me up in front of the Chairman” – where the risk is lower (though the stakes may be higher), but worry less about everyday situations where bad behaviour is more likely.

There is one caveat to that. I’m talking about overt bad behaviour. Unethical behaviour can take place in quite strong, formal situations. signing contract.jpgIf you’ve watched dramas like McMafia or The Night Manager you’ll know that people can use the trappings of formality, signing a contract printed on high quality paper with a Mont Blanc pen at a mahogany board table to agree an illegal arms sale or carve up drug-trafficking routes. It may lend the proceedings a degree of legitimacy, even though everyone knows the contract would be enforced with a baseball bat not a barrister.

2. The Environment

The environment affects us in ways we’re not even aware of. Being in nature – or even looking at it out of the window – makes us happier, more creative, kinder and enables us to recover more quickly from illness.  Simply having pot plants in the office has significant beneficial effects. And it’s not just the natural environment. Light levels, noise, temperature, colour and design features all have an imperceptible impact on us. People are cued to behave differently in a hushed, wood-panelled office with thick carpet and very traditional furniture compared with a bustling hipster co-working space with bean bags and a ping-pong table. One environment suggests formality, perhaps deference, the other doesn’t.

There’s a growing field of design to encourage certain types of behaviour – collaboration, creative thinking and so on. I know little about such wizardry but I do know from experimental evidence that you are more likely to drive a hard bargain in a negotiation if you are sitting on a hard chair. airport urinalOn a very practical note, Schiphol airport in Amsterdam has demonstrated that you can reduce the problem of wet floors in gents’ loos through the use of a strategically-placed picture of a fly on each urinal. Apparently, you guys like to aim at things.

3. Cultural norms 

Cultural norms let us know how things are done around here – what’s acceptable, what’s not and what you’ll get away with. I assume that in Texas it’s fairly unremarkable to take your gun to a business meeting, whereas here in Bath it would be considered rather a serious breach of etiquette. There isn’t a universal standard for what’s considered bad behaviour. That applies across company cultures as well as national cultures. Different types of bad behaviour may be encouraged, condoned or overlooked in cultures which are ‘dog eat dog’ competitive, ‘show no vulnerability’ macho or ‘it’s just banter’ laddish, to name just a few.

How your organisation views regulation or approaches questions around diversity will give people a sense of what they need to take seriously, what’s just lip service and what they can get away with. The reaction when things go wrong also gives people clues as to how they should behave. Do you all look embarrassed, pretend it didn’t happen and move on? Do you maturely analyse what went wrong in a blame-free way? Or is there a relentless witch hunt to find and punish the culprit? Bad behaviour can be simply a form of self-protection in some environments.

4. Group dynamics

Group dynamics involve the individual and may be shaped to some extent by a person’s characteristics, particularly if they are quite dominant or hold a powerful position in the group, but they can never be entirely determined by one person. For example, the dynamics will be different if there is just one dominant person in a group compared with if there are two, particularly if neither of them is the official group leader.ostracised Group dynamics vary and lead to different types of behaviour depending on where formal and informal power lies, how much trust there is between group members and how much they share values and goals. If you have two clear factions (within or between departments) people may behave badly towards the other lot, particularly if their ‘in group’ feels threatened.

Group dynamics and culture can interact to create conditions where bad behaviour may thrive. Imagine a very competitive, bottom-line driven culture, paying lip service to regulation with a few maverick rule-breakers at the top and a lot of people who don’t question authority lower down. Are these the conditions that led to the numerous financial mis-selling scandals of the last few years?

There are, of course, many drivers of behaviour that are entirely individual. Our personalities, values and motivation influence our behaviour, as does the shadow side of our personality (a particular driver for bad behaviour) and even our level of intelligence – people may behave badly if they don’t really understand the situation and jump to conclusions, as a quick look at Twitter will demonstrate. But you can’t take a person out of context and, if you have issues with people’s behaviour in your organisation, it’s worth looking at it more broadly than just a few bad apples. Sometimes you have a bad orchard.

If you’d like to talk about behaviour issues in your organisation, I’d be happy to have a chat:

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Astrid Westvang


Why stress is a meaningless concept

Is your job stressful? Do you feel stressed right now? Or are some of your colleagues going through a stressful time? Tired despair, head on lap top - not used yetIf so, you and your organisation would be fairly typical of the modern workplace. So given that I’m a psychologist, you’re probably anticipating some tips on how to deal with workplace stress. Well, sorry to disappoint, but I actually want to suggest that the whole concept of stress is flawed to the point of being meaningless.

Obviously, I’m not denying that people sometimes have a tough time at work. So what’s wrong with describing that as ‘stress’? Well here are three reasons:

1. It’s a catch-all term

About 20 years ago, I conducted some research as part of my MSc, exploring what people meant when they said they had a satisfying day or stressful day.  I found that there were only two types of satisfying day:

• I got loads of good stuff done
• I faced a big challenge and overcame it

By contrast, there were so many variations of stressful days, that it was almost impossible to categorise them, beyond ‘something bad happened’. Compare these workplace scenarios, all of which could be described as stressful:

• Having much more work that you can possibly do in the time available

• Having a controlling boss who gives no praise and shouts if you make a mistake

• Being unable to save the life of someone in your care

• Being attacked or threatened by a member of the public

• Being ostracised by the rest of your team

• Giving an important presentation to a hostile audience

• Working in an environment that’s too hot/cold/noisy

• Being publicly humiliated or on the receiving end of unfair criticism

• Feeling out of your depth and incapable of doing what’s expected

• Working in a team that’s in constant conflict

• Trying to hold it together at work while facing a crisis in your personal life

These are all ‘stressful situations’ but they have little in common besides being unpleasant. You might argue that these are simply different causes of workplace stress but I think they’re more different than that.  The actual experiences are different. In some of these situations, you may be in shock, in others exhausted; some might leave you feeling profoundly sad, others anxious, angry, despondent, irritated, helpless or terrified. Perhaps it’s easier for people to say “I’m feeling stressed” than “I’m really scared” or “I’m so angry I don’t know what to do with myself” but doesn’t it muddy the water to treat these very different experiences as though they’re the same? Can one set of generic stress management techniques really cover it all?

2. Built-in ambiguity

Stress is a very slippery concept. Sometimes we say “I’m under a lot of stress” or “This is very stressful”, suggesting that stress is an external thing that has an impact on us. Other times, we say “I’m feeling stressed”, as though stress is our reaction to a situation. This might sound like an extremely pedantic distinction but it matters because it cuts to the heart of the question – whose responsibility is it? Is the situation too much to cope with or are you at fault for not being able to hack it?

There’s no straightforward answer to this. It’s a complex interaction of the situation and your capabilities and resilience. I know, for example, that I can feel excited and energised by the idea of having a meeting with a new client without having a clue what it’s going to be about.  For others, the lack of preparation would stymie them. On the other hand, if I were in a job where I was required to make constant quick decisions, I’d probably have a meltdown by lunchtime. Being clear about what’s really bothering you can make it easier to work out what’s reasonable, what you can and can’t do and what you might stretch to if you got a grip on your emotions.

Framing things in terms of stress, by contrast, maintains the ambiguity and can lead to people feeling guilty or inadequate for not coping. A coaching client I’ll call John, for example, managed a team who were doing fine. Then two new projects came in just as three of the team announced they were joining a competitor and were placed on immediate gardening leave. John battled valiantly to hold it all together but wondered whether to admit to his manager that he was feeling stressed. It’s not often a psychologist will tell you that your feelings aren’t that important, but, in this instance, it helped John to see that the conversation he needed to have with his manager was not about his feelings but about resourcing issues and priorities. Looking at it through the lens of stress had muddied the water and given him unrealistic expectations about coping, to the point where he was trying to work miracles.

3. Masking exploitation

Back in the first half of the 20th century, my grandfather cut coal with a shovel and loaded it on to ships at Cardiff docks. Coal trimmersIt was a very tough job. Conditions were harsh, pay was low and he was on the equivalent of a zero-hours contract, so had no financial security. I doubt he would have described himself as stressed and when we look back on those times we tend not to think in terms of stress either. Instead we talk about oppression, exploitation and unacceptable working conditions.

Fast-forward to today and that language seems somewhat archaic. It seems perfectly natural to talk about the stressful working conditions of, for example, unpaid interns working long hours to get a break in fashion or television, or gig-economy delivery drivers who don’t have time for a loo break. Framing these unacceptable work practices in terms of stress normalises them –  stress is just part of working life, isn’t it? Maybe they should just tough it out? Perhaps a bit of lavender oil on the dashboard would help those drivers relax a bit. No, sometimes you don’t need a stress management guru, you need an employment lawyer or a trade union.

So if not stress management, then what?

I take people’s well-being at work very seriously so you’d think that tackling stress would be high on my agenda. It’s true that I’m often called in when someone is ‘suffering from stress’. But if my response to that was a set of generic stress management techniques I’d be doing my clients a disservice. Sure it helps to take a break, clear your head, come to terms with your feelings. Most of us would benefit from more sleep and more exercise. Beyond that what you need is clarity. The way you manage your particular stressful situation given your unique personality, skill set and life circumstances is as individual as you are.

If you’d like some support working out what’s really going on in your stressful situation, I’d be happy to have a chat:

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Caution emotion at work: 4) envy

This is the final article in my series on emotion at work and this time I’m tackling the one that rarely gets talked about – envy, and its frequent companion, resentment. envy-colleagueWhereas feeling anxious or angry is seen as fairly normal at work, envy seems to be more of a shameful secret. After all, if you’re envious it means someone else has something you want but don’t have. It could be something tangible, like a promotion or a business trip to the States, or it might be someone’s characteristics – maybe they’re smarter, more attractive or more popular than you. Or even worse, all three. These are not things we feel comfortable acknowledging, as there’s a vulnerability there, and yet I suspect many workplaces are seething with envy. So here are five tips for handling your own envy, followed by some ideas on how to handle envious colleagues.

Handling your own green-eyed monster

1. Acknowledge how you feel

Stop telling yourself you don’t feel jealous or you shouldn’t feel jealous. You’re human, it’s how you feel. As with the other emotions I’ve discussed, treat it as data and work out what it’s telling you. Accept that there’s a degree of vulnerability in being envious – you’re in a one-down position, something is missing in your life. It’s OK not to feel great about that.

2. Get a reality check

This is particularly important for those situations where someone else has got an opportunity, e.g. promotion, that you wanted. Something I’ve heard often is “They’ve just got the gift of the gab. I’m a better programmer/lawyer/accountant”. What’s missing here is a recognition that, once you reach a certain level, your technical or professional skill is not enough. To be successful in the role you need the inter-personal and influencing skills that you may be dismissing as just talk. This may be time to take stock and work out how you can develop these skills in yourself rather than seeing them as window dressing. On the other hand, if you genuinely come to the conclusion that no one gets on in your organisation unless they went to the right school or they play golf with the MD, then may I refer you back to the article about anger.

3. Accept that the world’s not fair

Don’t shoot the messenger but there will always be people who are more attractive, more successful, more popular, wealthier than you. There’s no point railing against it. Without wanting to sound like a cheesy motivational speaker, all you can do is aim to be the best version of you that you can be. Resist turning envy into resentment. The person who got that promotion you really wanted hasn’t done anything wrong. That colleague who’s smart and good looking is just lucky. Psychologists distinguish between benign envy and malicious envy; the former focuses on the thing you don’t have and how you might get it, the latter focuses on the person who’s got what you want and can lead you to want to bring them down a peg or two. Only malicious envy leads to schadenfreude.

4. Appreciate what you’ve got

There is sound evidence that actively appreciating and expressing gratitude for what we have makes us happier and even healthier. By all means strive for more, but don’t take for granted what you already have. No matter what your circumstances, you are almost certainly luckier than most of the people who have ever lived, simply by virtue of living in a prosperous country with access to antibiotics, reliable contraception, abundant food, central heating and modern dentistry. Envy comes from focusing too much on what’s missing. Shifting your focus to what’s not missing may lessen its sting.

5. Don’t judge your inside against someone else’s outside

You have unique access to your own shortcomings, your insecurities and anxieties, boredom and failures. You don’t always see other people’s, particularly in this social media age where people present all the fabulous bits of their lives – the holidays, the cocktails, the #feelingblessed moments – and pretend the rest doesn’t exist. For all you know that spectacularly successful colleague may be struggling to hold his marriage together. That beautiful, talented, charming new trainee may have an eating disorder. You can’t know everything that’s going on in other people’s lives or their heads. Don’t assume other people’s lives are golden if yours feels black and white.

Handling someone else’s envy

If someone envies you

If you get the sense that one of your colleagues envies you, you have to tread a fine line – don’t apologise, but don’t flaunt it. Suppose you’ve been given some amazing opportunity and they haven’t. There’s no reason for you to be embarrassed or apologetic but it pays to be sensitive about how – and how much – you talk about it when they’re around. If it feels appropriate, address the issue with them – “I think it might be awkward that I got this opportunity rather than you but I don’t want that to get in the way of us working together”. Obviously this only applies to something extrinsic – something given to you – not one of your intrinsic characteristics. There are no circumstances where “It seems a little awkward that I’m so much better looking than you” is going to be well-received.

If people envy you because your life seems to be so perfect, then showing a bit of genuine vulnerability can make you a more relatable human being. Admit you’re nervous about a presentation, ask for help with something.

If you’re the boss and there’s envy in the team

Try not to inadvertently create situations where envy and resentment might fester. It’s likely that you’ll like some of your staff more than others and that some will be superstars while others are plodders, but be careful how you distribute opportunity among the team. Things people might see as giving others an advantage include working on innovative projects, access to training or coaching, trips abroad, deputising for you, presenting to senior managers. Make sure your criteria for deciding who gets to do what are fair and transparent.  If you have a high-flyer in your team whom others envy, make sure you are appreciative of the contribution made by everyone else.

If you’d like some support managing emotion in the workplace, I’d be happy to have a chat:

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Caution emotion at work: 3) anger (someone else’s)

This is the third in a series on emotion at work. Having looked last time at how to handle your own anger at work, this month I’m focusing on dealing with someone else’s anger. Angry people can be intimidating, so it’s useful to have strategies for dealing with them, depending on where their anger is directed.

1. Rage against the machine

The photocopier has jammed for the umpteenth time just as your colleague is preparing copies of a really important document. Angry man with laptopYour colleague snaps. This is probably the easiest example of anger to deal with as you can probably just let them rant for a bit and perhaps intervene before they kick the machine. If they’re so prone to this kind of behaviour that various bits of office equipment have dents in them, then you might want to have a quiet word, when they’re in a calmer place, about how they manage their frustration and the impact they’re having on others – and on their own reputation.

2. Those $&**!! useless idiots

When someone’s raging about a supplier or another department, it’s got a little more heat to it than a rant about a photocopier  – these are real people, after all – but there’s still a certain distance that keeps it relatively safe. How you respond may depend on your own views on the issue. Maybe you feel the other party is being unfairly maligned and want to defend them. On the other hand, you might be nursing your own grievance and be keen to join in. It’s worth thinking about what you want to achieve before you respond at all. Are you likely to fuel your colleague’s anger? If so, maybe now is not the moment to say much.

A couple of useful questions/conversation openers in this situation are:

  • “I can see how frustrated/pissed off/annoyed you are about this. Now you’ve got it off your chest, what are you planning to do?” – this is useful for those people who love a good whinge but aren’t brave enough to take constructive action.
  • “I wonder what they’re saying about this right now. How might it look from their point of view?” – this is useful when you’re pretty sure there’s another side to this story.

3. Someone else in the room

It all gets a bit closer to home when someone is angry with another person in the room, particularly in a meeting. ArgumentFor some people this is worse than anger being directed at them, because they’re afraid things might spiral out of control. If you fit this category, then try not to stifle things so much that nothing gets resolved. Useful strategies in this situation include:

  • acknowledging the anger
  • finding out what’s behind it without using the word “why?”, which immediately puts people on the defensive
  • listening and reflecting back.

“I can see how annoyed/frustrated/angry you are about this. What is it in particular that you feel so strongly about?”. “So what you’re saying is…..”. Angry people often want to feel heard and to have their anger acknowledged. It doesn’t necessarily mean you agree with them or that there aren’t other perspectives.

If two people are embroiled in an argument that’s getting heated, try taking a leaf out of a relationship counsellor’s book – ask one of them to explain the situation from their perspective, uninterrupted, for a few minutes, then get the other person to summarise what they said without adding anything. Make sure the first person feels properly heard. Then reverse the roles. Hearing themselves explain the other point of view can take some of the heat out and help identify common ground to build on.

4. You – because you’ve messed up

You’ve made a mistake that’s had consequences and now someone – your boss, a colleague, a client – is giving it to you with both barrels. Try not to get defensive and start with four As:

  • Admit you were at fault
  • Apologise
  • Acknowledge that they’re entitled to be angry
  • Accept responsibility – explain what you’re going to do to put the situation right and /or ensure it doesn’t happen again.

What if they’re still angry and haranguing you? Try one or both of these questions:

  • “Given where we are, what would you like to happen now?”
  • “What do you need from me?”

If they’re simply venting their anger to make themselves feel better or to punish you, then they’ll either ask for something you’ve already given, e.g. an apology, which you can repeat, or not know how to answer the question. That may be your way out – “Perhaps we should pick this up when you’ve had time to think about what you’d like to happen next”.

5. You – because you don’t agree

This can harder to handle than a situation where you know you’ve screwed up because a) you may not be expecting it and b) you may not see their anger as justified. Often these situations arise from mismatched expectations – they thought you’d back their ideas and you didn’t, they expected you to take responsibility for something you thought was their responsibility, you have different expectations about what “good enough” looks like and so on.

Getting some clarity about these different expectations can take the conversation away from who’s right and who’s wrong and form the basis of a negotiation of a way forward. The open questions, listening and reflecting back mentioned in point 3 are just as relevant here but harder to master when you’re one of the people embroiled in the heated debate. Don’t be afraid to take time out to get your head together, even if it’s just popping to the loo.

If you’d like some support managing emotion in the workplace, I’d be happy to have a chat:

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Caution emotion at work: 2) anger (yours)

This is the second in a short series on emotion at work. Last month I tackled anxiety, this month I’m moving on to anger. IMG_2549I realised while writing this that there’s enough to say about handling your own anger at work to fill an article, so I’m saving other people’s anger til next time.

Anger tends to be the emotion we’re most wary of but in itself it’s perfectly healthy. It’s what we do with it that makes it scary. There are a number of unhelpful ways to handle anger and many of us have default settings, though they may vary between work and home, boss and team members and so on. See if you recognise yourself in any of these:


Shouting, swearing, banging the table, there’s no mistaking the anger here. If you come from a culture – or a family – where having a right old ding dong is how you resolve difference then this may seem quite normal, but it isn’t for everyone. People who erupt with anger are not generally afraid of conflict but may not recognise how intimidating it is for others. You may think that, after a burst of anger, you put it behind you and move on, but others are likely to be more wary of you in future. If you’re a manager, people may hide bad news for fear of your reaction. And don’t kid yourself that being feared is the same as being respected – it really isn’t.


Want people to know you’re angry but don’t really like confrontation? Why not sit glowering in the corner, occasionally tutting and rolling your eyes, while people try to coax you out of your bad mood? For added impact, keep ’em guessing about what’s wrong – “If I have to tell you, Darren, it just shows how little you understand”. Stereotypically this is seen as something women do, but I’ve seen men in high status positions play the same game – giving someone the cold shoulder because they didn’t realise they were supposed to hold the door open for him, for example. Being the moody one everyone tiptoes around is not going to make you popular, especially if you’re the boss.

Secretly seething

If sulking feels a bit confrontational for you, you may prefer to maintain a facade that everything’s fine, while secretly seething and being quietly uncooperative. People may sense that something is wrong but they can’t be sure. You seem to go along with things but then you’re not happy and stubbornly keep doing things your own way. You’ll show ’em not to mess you about – except that no one actually knows what you want and you just leave people confused and frustrated.

Swallowing it

If you’re really scared of conflict then feeling angry is likely to be swiftly followed by feeling anxious. If you’re angry, something is wrong, which means you might have to say something and that’s scary, so better to talk yourself out of it, swallow the anger and accept whatever it is that caused the anger in the first place. Of course, if you do this too often you may become a complete doormat, perpetually taken advantage of by others.

None of these is a sensible way to handle anger but I know I’m not alone in using them at times. So what should we be doing instead?

Here’s a five point plan:

1. Get a grip 

You have a right to be angry. You don’t have a right to behave badly (or certainly not without consequences). Separate your feelings from your behaviour and at least get your behaviour under control. If you can’t control yourself, try and remove yourself from the situation to calm down (a loo break maybe?). If you have to stay in the situation, slow right down. Pause before responding, unclench your jaw, unfold your arms, breathe slowly and deeply. Notice what’s happening in your body and try to relax the bits you’ve tensed.

2. Distinguish anger from anxiety

If you’re really practised at swallowing your anger, you may not even notice it’s there. You might go straight from ‘something’s wrong’ to anxiety. Ironically, many people who erupt with anger have the opposite issue – they’re actually quite fearful but anger feels more powerful and they use it to mask anxiety. I once saw a man violently attack a complete stranger on a train with the justification “What else was I supposed to do? He called me gay?”. I could only wonder at the level of fear this guy must have had about a) different sexuality and b) perceived loss of face to react with terrifying rage to such a trivial incident.

If you’re used to feeling angry, anxiety may be a new and uncomfortable emotion. The same is true the other way round. Try not to dismiss these unfamiliar feelings as they’ll help the next bit.

3. Get a reality check

Like all emotional reactions, you can see anger as data. It’s telling you that something is not as you think it should be. This is where a reality check is useful. Firstly, how accurate is your picture of the situation? How would it look from the other person’s perspective? What assumptions are you making about people’s motives, based on their behaviour? It’s very easy to misinterpret people’s actions, attributing ill-intent where none was intended.

Secondly, what does your anger tell you about your expectations of the world? If you’ve worked yourself into a spitting rage because that stupid intern brought you a macchiato with semi-skimmed milk when you made it perfectly clear you wanted skimmed, then your anger may be telling you something about your stress level, your reaction to caffeine or perhaps your astonishing sense of entitlement. What are you making it mean when the world doesn’t give you exactly what you want?

Conversely, if you normally swallow your anger, a reality check might convince you, for example, that your anger over someone taking the credit for your work is perfectly reasonable and that this time, enough is enough.

4. Decide what you’re going to do

What if, instead of erupting, sulking, seething or pretending it’s not happening, you did something about it? Perhaps you could have a proper, grown-up conversation with the person you’re angry with. It takes courage, it may be awkward and uncomfortable but it is possible to be angry with dignity and in a respectful way. Something along the lines of “This happened, this is how I feel and what I’d like is..”, e.g. “I was expecting that report four days ago, I’m really frustrated that I’ve had to chase you twice. What I’d like is for us to agree a completion date and you stick to it”.

Of course this may not always be appropriate or possible, but work out what would be the most constructive course of action in the situation, even if it’s choosing to do nothing.

5. If necessary, let it go

If you choose to do nothing or there is nothing you can do, then let it go. “But, but, but”, you might say, “it’s still wrong, I’m still angry”. But if you’re not going to do anything about it, then the only person suffering if you carry this anger around is you. So make a conscious decision to let it go. Try not to keep going over it. Take it out on a punch bag. Write a really angry letter, then rip it to shreds or burn it (never, ever send it).

So there you go, four things to avoid and five things to try. Next time, just in time for Christmas, dealing with someone else’s anger at work.

If you’d like some support managing emotion in the workplace, I’d be happy to have a chat:

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Caution emotion at work: 1) anxiety

Wouldn’t it be great if work was a place of calm and rationality all the time? Somewhere where you didn’t have to deal with messy feelings – yours or anyone else’s. Christmas party 3In the not too distant future, when we’ve mostly been replaced by robots, that’ll probably be the case, but until then emotions will remain an integral part of work. They’re part of what makes us human. On the other hand, the regulation, and appropriate expression, of those emotions is what makes us mature humans. So with that in mind, I thought I’d do a short series on feelings at work, starting with that all-too-common workplace emotion – anxiety.

Obviously if you are chronically anxious, you might want to consider getting professional help for that. I’m thinking of those everyday work situations that cause anxiety – presentations, difficult conversations, rumours of job losses and so on. Whether you’re the anxious person or you’re working with someone who’s feeling anxious, here are some tips on managing it.

4 tips for managing your own anxiety


1. Stop hoping it’ll go away 

Many people try to deal with difficult situations using the trusty old ‘Try not to think about it’ method, which is rarely successful. Distracting yourself does have its place – when the situation is outside your control, such as waiting for the outcome of a job interview, you may as well focus on something else if you can. But if you’re putting off facing something that you know you’ll have to deal with eventually, then all you’re really doing is prolonging the agony.  It also robs you of valuable preparation time. It’s better to feel anxious while imagining yourself giving a presentation and rehearsing than to freeze on the day because you haven’t prepared properly.

2. Try and work out what’s really bothering you

Often we turn our anxieties about something specific into a more generic fear without realising it. FuzzyFor example, it’s not uncommon to feel nervous if asked to speak at a board meeting. But for one person this may be based on a fear of not being taken seriously and coming across as junior, whereas another person may be concerned that someone will be aggressive and give them a hard time. Getting clearer about the root of your of your anxiety, either by exploring it on your own or talking to someone else, enables you to develop strategies to deal with those particular concerns, so you’re better prepared.

3. Pay attention to your body

A key thing to recognise about anxiety is that it is largely a physical response to a perceived threat. When we’re anxious, we often spend a lot of time trying to quell or ignore physical sensations, such as sweaty palms or butterflies in the tummy. Or we notice them and panic, making it all worse. A more effective way to handle anxiety, which takes a bit of practice, is to be mindful: notice these sensations and let them be, without judging. So instead of “Oh no, I feel anxious. I hate feeling like this. How do I make it stop?”, see if you can replace it with “I notice there’s a fluttery feeling in my abdomen”, “I notice my breathing is shallow”. There’s no right or wrong in observing; you’re just seeing what’s there. It might also give you clues as to where you are tense so that you can start to relax.

4. Take a deep breath

In a situation where everything feels out of control, including your physical sensations, the one thing you may be able to control is your breath. Breath bubbleSlowing your breathing down will almost certainly help. Psychotherapist Alec Stansfield, who specialises in treating trauma survivors, recommends a technique called 7-11 breathing, though I have to say that if you can manage to breathe in for 7 seconds and out for 11 then I have to admire your lung capacity. In for 3 seconds and out for 5 may be an easier starting point.

4 tips for supporting an anxious person

1. Don’t dismiss their feelings

If you’re not prone to worry, it can be hard to understand people who get worked up over things which seem trivial to you. PANIC and ANXIEYBut that doesn’t make the feelings any less real to them. I once met a woman who was afraid of buttons. I didn’t understand it and neither did she, but it wouldn’t have helped to say “Oh calm down, it’s just a bit of plastic”. Anything which trivialises people’s feelings – “You’re making a fuss over nothing”, “Get a grip” – just makes it worse because now they have to worry about how they’re being perceived on top of whatever caused the original anxiety.

2. Be careful about reassurance

If you have some salient facts that you know will be reassuring, then go ahead. The knowledge that the really scary director won’t be on their interview panel may be all someone needs to feel better. But be wary of things you can’t guarantee – “Oh I’m sure there won’t be job losses” – and also be careful with emotional reassurance. “Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll be fine” might sound supportive but how do you know? Rather than reassuring, this can come across as another way to dismiss someone’s feelings. If you can give real, specific feedback that puts a positive perspective – “that presentation you did last month was really professional” – then fine. But blanket reassurance is less helpful.

3. Don’t rescue them

If someone is really struggling, it can be tempting to rescue them – give the presentation to someone else, have the difficult conversation on their behalf. Occasionally, this may be appropriate – if they’re likely to screw up an important pitch to a client, for example. But people don’t develop unless they master things that make them anxious. Better to support them to overcome the anxiety than to take the source of it away.

4. Help them to prepare and explore

Tread carefully here, particularly if you don’t have any official role, like being the person’s manager or mentor. listeningAsking questions is more helpful than giving advice. “You seem a bit anxious, would it help to talk about it?” is a good start. If the answer is no, back off. If they’re happy to talk then, aim to help them figure out for themselves how to handle the situation. Useful questions include:

  • What are you most concerned about?
  • What would make you feel more in control of the situation?
  • What’s worked for you in the past in these situations – and what hasn’t?
  • How can I help?

If you have advice you think might be useful, ask whether they’d find it helpful if you shared what you did/would do in similar circumstances, rather than just handing it to them.

So there you go, a 4 x 4 on managing anxiety. Next time that big scary emotion – anger!

If you’d like some support managing emotion in the workplace, I’d be happy to have a chat:

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Photo credits

Andrew Teman

Nicholas Suhor

Andrea Castelletti

Bob Semk


Back to work with a bang

So here we are in the last days of summer before we revert to ‘back to school’ normality next week. Back_to_school1I’ve written here before about the idea that for many of us September feels much more like New Year than January does. This is the time when we start afresh.

You may come back to work with renewed determination to do things differently, better. Or you may have had a brainwave while your mind was idling on a Mediterranean beach/windswept Cornish clifftop (delete as appropriate). At the very least, you may come back feeling refreshed and ready to look at things in a new way. So how do you ensure that those ideas and optimism don’t get lost as you start drowning in to-do lists and caught up in business as usual? Well here are five steps, in the form of questions, to keep you on track.

1. What do I want to change?

A vague intention to ‘be more productive’ will get you nowhere. Get as clear as you can on what it is you want to achieve or do differently. Talking it through with someone will probably help, as will some form of creative thinking process. It’s likely that whatever you’re trying to achieve will fall into into one of these three categories:

  • a goal, e.g. I want to increase sales by 20% a month, I want 500 new twitter followers by the end of September
  • a project, e.g. I want to redevelop the website, I need to create a new business unit
  • a habit, e.g. I want to exercise three times a week, I want to clear my desk every night.

It’s worth being clear which it is because they are managed differently.

2. What’s at stake?

Don’t just focus on what you want to achieve but why you want to achieve it. If you are clear about the beneficial outcomes of the change (and if you’re not, why on earth are you considering it?) it’s likely to be easier to stay motivated and maintain the momentum. Some kind of visual reminder can be useful.

3. Does it involve other people?

If you can’t achieve this alone or you need permission to do it, then your next step has to be to work out who you need to influence and how you’ll do it. This is most likely to be the case for a project, which might involve additional expenditure or a diversion of effort and resources. Even if you can achieve your goal on your own, it’s worth considering who else it affects. It’s all very well deciding you’ll unwind with 30 minutes mindfulness practice a day but if it coincides with your children’s bedtime, your partner may have something to say about it.

4. How do I give this priority? 

PriorityThe main thing that stops us from focusing on the bigger things we want to achieve is that life gets in the way. There are so many other things to get done. You need to actively give this new aspiration a higher priority. This may involve:

  • Nailing your colours to the mast. If you go public about your intentions then the fear of embarrassment may be enough to keep you on track.
  • Being clear about what you are not going to do, at least for now. If you’re going to fit in something else into the finite resource which is the 168 hours in a week, then something has to give.
  • Rewarding yourself. Planning little rewards if you reach your goal or stick to your habit for a set period may keep you on track.

5. Who – and what – can support me in this?

Sharing your aspirations with others can mean there are people around to support and encourage you. Even better is if you can buddy up with someone who has a similar goal. If you can share an activity, such as mindfulness practice, that’s really helpful for keeping you on track. But even where your goals are unrelated, reporting back to someone can be motivating. A friend and I, for example, have a weekly KUTA call (excuse the language, that’s Kick Up The Arse) where we hold each other to account for business development activity on our entirely separate businesses.

And don’t underestimate the value of apps, especially for habit formation. There are apps for fitness goals, learning a language, managing a to-do list and many others. They all seem to be based around the idea of positive reinforcement and, for some people, can be quite addictive in a benign way.

So in summary, work out what you want to achieve, how to fit it into your life and how to involve others. If you’d like some support thinking any of that through, I’d be happy to have a chat:

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Photo credits

Back to school: zcool

Priorities: Peter Reed