It’s a sad fact that, at some point throughout our career, we will come across someone who is behaving badly in the workplace. It may be someone who speaks poorly about another person or actively participates in office gossip. Perhaps its someone who is rude and disrespectful to you during a meeting or in a conversation. It may even be someone who is bullying or intimidating you into doing something that you are uncomfortable with.
Experiencing this kind of behaviour in the workplace may be first hand, or you may have been a witness to it. Either way, it needs to be called out yet so often it isn’t. To call someone on their poor behaviour is frightening and very uncomfortable for most of us, and it’s even uncomfortable to watch. It takes courage to do it, and part of the reason we so often don’t do it, is because we fear the consequences if we do. Will I damage the relationship I have with this person? Will I be perceived as the one who is behaving poorly? Will I lose my job, particularly if the person is in a position of authority? All very real fears. But what if we don’t call it out?
By not addressing poor behaviour in the workplace we see a culture of disrespect, fear and low trust develop, and we need organisations to have trust. In a study completed by Brown, Gray, McHardy and Taylor in 2014 found a positive relationship between trust in the workplace and financial performance, labour productivity and product or service quality in organisations. Similarly, Paul Zak author of The Neuroscience of Trust found that companies with high trust report 74% less stress, 50% higher productivity, 13% less sick days and 76% more engagement than organisations with low trust.
So how then can we feel more comfortable calling out poor behaviour in the workplace?
In the 1960’s the civil rights movement in America used exposure therapy to help students to peacefully protest against black segregation in Nashville. Workshops on the philosophy, tactics and techniques of non-violence were held by students prior to a sit-in or demonstration to help them to manage their fear and the responses they would likely receive from members of the community once the protests began.
By being exposed to these responses over a number of workshops the students were then able to manage their fears effectively, along with the responses they received, and this meant they could hold their ground in a calm and respectful manner. Three weeks after the commencement of their protests, they were successful in having black customers served at lunch counters across Nashville.
Like these students we are able to identify most scenario’s that poor behaviour could look like in our workplaces. If we use exposure therapy for these scenarios, such as role playing with a trusted colleague, talking about ways to challenge with our team members, or even scripting out our own responses, when the situation arises you will be more practiced at managing it.
Don’t forget to breathe
When we are faced with a situation that requires us to be brave we have a neurological and physiological reaction. Neurologically our brains perceive threats, both real or perceived, in the same way. When we experience this threat or fear our amygdala, the little almond-shaped section of nervous tissue that sits in the limbic part of our brains responsible for our emotions, instincts and memory, goes into overdrive creating a chemical cocktail of adrenaline and cortisol. This triggers the fight, flight or freeze action required to keep us alive.
When this happens, the cerebral or pre-frontal cortex part of our brain, which is responsible for our sensible, rational thinking, shuts down and we find it hard to think straight. That’s why, three hours later when you’ve calmed down, you can think of that witty, clever response. So it doesn’t matter if someone comes at us with a knife, or someone says something nasty to us, we have the same neurological reaction. Physiologically we may break into a sweat, our breathing becomes shallow and our heartbeat races.
To manage this response, Navy SEALs use a 4X4 method of deep breathing while in conflict situations. This involves breathing in through your nose for a count of four then breathing out through your mouth for a count of four. If you can do this three times, immediately after you become conscious that you are reacting it will help you to re-engage your pre-frontal cortex and respond more rationally and courageously.
It’s only by being courageous that things will start to change.