Login | Contact

“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


Leave a Reply

Airing Out the Office: How to Keep Toxic Behaviors from Overwhelming the Workplace

danger-44457__180Have you ever come into work after a long weekend and the smell of new carpet or paint was overwhelming? The first thing we want to do is open a window to let in some fresh air. If we cannot air out the room fast enough, we get headaches and have difficulty concentrating because of the fumes. Incivility in the workplace operates like these toxic fumes. Consultant Sharone Bar-David says, “Workplace incivility refers to those seemingly insignificant behaviors that are rude, disrespectful, discourteous, or insensitive, where the intent to harm is ambiguous or unclear.”  The behaviors can include a co-worker who repeatedly avoids saying hello in passing, the team who leaves for lunch without inviting you, eye rolling while another team member is talking.

Dr. Derald Wing Sue’s book Microaggressions in Everyday Life (2010) specifically discusses put-downs based on race, gender, or sexual orientation. Insensitive comments such as, “I’m not a racist, some of my best friends are black,” and “You are very articulate… [for a woman; Hispanic; Asian, etc.]” are usually uttered by people who mean well and do not understand the hurtful impact. These “Micro-insults” are especially damaging because the message is ambiguous—was that an insult? We frequently avoid addressing a micro-insult because others may accuse us of overreacting. However, leaving uncivil behavior unchecked accumulates like toxic paint fumes until the work environment becomes unbearable. So what would it mean to open the window and let in the fresh air in a workplace setting?

 Letting in the fresh air requires us to…

  • Name and claim the impact on us.

Dr. John Potter of Southern Methodist University devised the Feel, Felt, Find strategy for handling micro-aggressions and other incivilities. It is important to use this tactic with an attitude of curiosity and openness, not hostility. Start by asking a question, “You feel I may not speak fluent English because I look Hispanic? I’m sure other people have felt like you do. However, since you don’t know me very well, I think you will find that I grew up in Idaho and English is my first language.” Feel, Felt, Find lets us address a vague put down without attacking or getting defensive.

  • Take responsibility for our feelings

One of our quickest reactions to criticism is blame. I made mistakes on the project because Bob is so annoying. He never says hello and rolls his eyes when I have an idea. This ritual complaining attempts to get sympathy from others at work, shifting the responsibility for my work performance onto Bob. Dr. Brené Brown explains, “Blame is simply the discharging of discomfort and pain.” Blame limits our ability to problem solve and to grow relationships. When we have a problem with a boss or co-worker, its best to handle it directly with the person involved using “I” statements and explaining the impact on us. Bob, I wonder if you know how important it is for me to get this project right. If you have questions or concerns about my work, will you please discuss it with me? Rolling your eyes when I talk doesn’t give me helpful feedback.

  • Examine our questions

Dr. Marilee Adams says, “Great results start with great questions” (Change Your Questions, Change Your Life, 2004). We can create a “judger” or “learner” mindset by the questions we ask. Judger mindset is reactive, inflexible, judgmental of self & others, and self-righteous. A learner mindset is flexible, accepting of self and others, and inquisitive. When we feel hot buttons pushed, we frequently ask “judger” questions such as Whose fault is this? Why is this person so clueless and frustrating? These questions lead us to negativity and despair. If your boss has you re-do work that seemed acceptable, ask some “learner” questions: Why might she want it done another way? What pressures is she facing from her boss? What am I missing here? What is important to her? A learning mindset helps us create and connect with others, immediately airing out potential toxins in the room.

Even in a difficult work environment, we have the power to choose our responses. Escaping the blame game and taking responsibility for things that impact us creates psychological fresh air. For more strategies to handle uncivil behavior at work, listen to Pattie Porter’s interview with Sharone Bar-David as they discuss her book   .


Wendy Mayfield

Graduate Student Intern

Southern Methodist University Master’s Program Dispute Resolution & Conflict Management

Leave a Reply

  • Subscribe by Email

    Join our mailing list to receive our newsletter and blogs!

  • Recent Posts