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“Remain Calm!” – Maintaining Composure When the Boss Attacks

Keep Calm and Guide the Universe
Keep calm and guide the universeMy nephew “Burt” was a reliable employee for two years with the same landscaping company. Fairly soon into his job, Burt noticed the boss seemed to single him out for criticism. The boss’s criticism turned into swearing, public ridicule, and name-calling. Burt tried to ignore these attacks, but eventually he lost his temper and yelled back, calling his African American supervisor the derogatory “N” word. Burt was immediately fired. How is this fair? Why is the boss able to be offensive without consequences? Why was my nephew fired for one angry outburst? News flash folks: Life is not fair. Bill Watterson, author, and illustrator of the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, describes a father teaching his son this hard lesson:  “The world isn’t fair, Calvin.” “ I know Dad, but why isn’t it ever unfair in my favor?”

People who work with rude, sarcastic and downright abrasive leaders may wonder the same thing. Losing your temper and retaliating against the boss will probably get you reassigned or terminated. Though it is not fair, it is life. How can you maintain professional composure when provoked?

Keep Calm and Carry On

When we become reactive to another’s actions or words, we are operating out of our primal “fight, flight or freeze” response. Daniel Goleman, the author of Emotional Intelligence, explains that the surge of adrenaline, rapid heart rate, increased blood flow to arms and legs—called Amygdala Hijack— diverts energy away from logical thinking. “…We tend to fall back on over-learned responses, which are responses learned early in life—which can lead us to do or say things that we regret later. It is important to understand that the impulses that come to us when we’re under stress—particularly if we get hijacked by it—are likely to lead us astray.” Goleman suggests that regular mindfulness practices help create space between our impulses and taking action, allowing us to make better choices in our responses.

Everyday mindfulness

Jon Kabat-Zinn founder of the Center for Mindfulness at University of Massachusetts Medical School says, “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”

Many people imagine mindfulness meditation as an Asian guru sitting for hours, eyes closed, quietly chanting or breathing. This image seems idealistic and impractical in our modern world. However, many everyday tasks become mindfulness practices if we take a moment to “pay attention in a particular way, on purpose.” The following ideas from Zen Habits can fit easily into our routines

  1. Do one thing at a time—do not multitask. For example, when exercising, do not listen to music but pay attention to your breath and how your body feels. If you are outside, notice the sights and sounds around you.
  2. Take your time doing a task and make your actions deliberate. When brushing your teeth, for instance, notice how your hand holds and operates the toothbrush. Pay attention to the action of brushing each tooth.
  3. Spend five minutes each day doing nothing. Give yourself permission to sit in silence or take a short walk without distractions.

Listen to our podcast Your Brain on Conflict: “Resistance is Fertile” with Scott Rogers for more insights about the neuroscience of mindfulness.

Mindfulness practices are very effective when they become a habit, but what to do when caught off guard in the middle of an “Amygdala Hijack”?

Immediate Strategies

Elizabeth Lowman writing for The Muse gives some helpful hints in “How to Keep Your Cool at Work” Here are just a few of her suggestions:

  1. Breathe – take long slow breaths to clear your mind before you react without thinking.
  2. Write down your thoughts – vent your frustrations on paper. Be very careful that no one can read them. Avoid using the computer or an email program. Accidentally hitting the ‘send’ button can cause more harm.
  3. Reach out to friends and loved ones by making a quick call or send a text message to change your perspective on the current situation.
  4. Take a break. Leave your phone and email at the office and take a walk or get lunch creating some needed distance.

Benefits to Keeping Calm

Eleanor Roosevelt has famously declared, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” By keeping your behavior professional and calm, you maintain power and confidence, increasing your own Emotional Intelligence Quotient (EQ). Sheri Callahan shared EQ skills for the workplace in our podcast Emotional Intelligence for Today’s Workplace.

Wendy Mayfield

Master’s Program

Dispute Resolution & Conflict Management

Southern Methodist University


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