Losing the plot at work - a guide for leaders...

Losing the plot. Flipping out. Throwing a wobbly. Going troppo. Taking a long walk off the short 'emotional stability' pier. Whatever colourful expression you want to use, the reality is that more people are having emotionally charged responses to situations at work than ever.  The sustained challenges of the business environment over the last five years has taken its toll. There's increased pressure to perform and improve productivity - to do more with less. All the while job security is reduced. Then there's the 'perfect storm' of being surrounded by people who are equally stressed. Just add end of year work drinks and mix. And of course all of this impacts not just individual and corporate reputations, but also productivity.

Perhaps the best example of losing the plot at work is that of Steven Slater. Does the name ring a bell? JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater? If you missed the story at the time you may be inclined to think I made it up, so here's a reputable account: http://tinyurl.com/23qbaas . In 2010 then 38 year old JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater was required to intervene in a minor altercation between two passengers vying for the same overhead luggage space prior to a flight from Pittsburgh to New York, so things didn't start out well. At the end of flight while the plane was still taxi-ing, one of the same passengers stood up and tried to remove her luggage so she could make a quick exit despite the seatbelt warning sign still being on. When asked by Steven to sit down, she refused, repeated swore, insulted him and continued to try to retrieve her luggage. To literally add injury to insult, the suitcase she was trying to retrieve hit Steven on the head in the process. Steven asked for an apology, which she refused to give. It seems that was enough for Steven. He fired up the plane’s PA for an expletive-ridden announcement which included his resignation, before grabbing two beers from the galley, opening the plane door, activating the emergency slide, and sliding out of the plane before driving home. Later that day he was then taken into custody by what neighbours described as "more than 50 police officers including a SWAT team". Steven quickly became a folk hero for everyone who wanted to quit their job in a dramatic way after a hard day at work.

Daniel Goleman coined the term "Amygdala Hijack" to describe those times when we respond to situations in immediate ways that we later regret - seemingly losing control of our emotions or even being unable to act (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amygdala_hijack). The amygdala is a part of the brain central to the regulation of emotional responses to events. In fact, it puts some colour on our experience of life by helping emotionally charged events to make it into long-term memory - as a result, Steven Slater is unlikely to forget that fateful flight. While much of our conscious experience in life gives us the impression that events happen and we then think about them and decide how to respond, the underlying brain processes are far more complex and interrelated than that. In fact, there are times when we respond emotionally before we've had a chance to consciously consider anything about what the event means for us. While the 'fight or flight' response is one version of this, grabbing two beers and exiting an aircraft in an unconventional way can be another.

As leaders it's important to maintain control over our emotions - not to remove them completely and become like robots, but to ensure we're better able to respond to situations in a controlled way. Part of achieving this involves understanding what triggers inappropriate emotional responses for us. While these will differ by person, Goleman highlights five common triggers in his latest book (http://tinyurl.com/7ozc2d4) - you can see how Steven Slater's in-flight flip out followed a number of these triggers:
  • Condescension and lack of respect 
  • Being treated unfairly 
  • Being unappreciated 
  • Feeling that you’re not being listened to or heard 
  • Being held to unrealistic deadlines
Spending some time considering the circumstances, people, locations and precursors that lead you to flip out (or get close to flipping out) will help you to craft more positive responses to these situations. As a leader, you can also help to create an environment that reduces the most common triggers - by establishing values around respecting others, ensuring contributions are recognised, that people have a voice in decisions that will impact them, and setting deadlines that are achievable. You can also put in place training that will help people to recognise their own triggers and respond more effectively.

That's my final blog for 2011. Thanks to the hundreds of people from all over the world who have read the blog and provided feedback (turns out the blog is surprisingly big in Denmark and Germany!)I look forward to being back in 2012.