Emotional Ruts: Get Out and Stay Out

Tom, the new vice-president of sales at a computer software company in Washington, D.C., was becoming well-known for his angry outbursts. Staff always knew when Tom received negative feedback: he would verbally abuse the bearer of the bad news.

Colleagues and staff tried to avoid delivering hard messages to Tom, yet the boss would have more fits if bad news came as a surprise.

Tom saw his management style like this: he wouldn’t countenance whiners, incompetents or the weak-kneed. To him, staff just couldn’t take criticism and that’s why business results were bad. Tom’s management style was causing declining sales and missed sales targets.

Meanwhile, in California, Hugh, a senior manager at a successful brokerage, demonstrated the opposite style of leadership. He was famous for dithering on tough decisions sticking his head in the sand when challenged and failing to deal with troublesome staff until it was too late. Competent staff, fed-up with covering for poor work, moved to other departments. Hugh began to generate poor business results through weak sales. Rather than tackle his unit’s problems, he withdrew to his office, hoping the issues would resolve themselves. Meanwhile, staff grumbled about the lack of focus, leadership and direction at work.

Two men with vastly different styles yet similar workplace outcomes: disgruntled staff and colleagues and poor business results.

There are more parallels. Both leaders are stuck in emotional response ruts that revolve around fight-or- flight responses to stress. They repeat behaviours when stressed — Tom attacks his staff; Hugh withdraws from them. Both leaders are acting on instinct: under stress, Tom fights. Hugh flees.

Both Tom and Hugh do little to change their reactions to on- t

he-job challenges. In our practice, we find that being stuck in an emotional response rut at work can be common for leaders and staff alike. While unpleasant, finding oneself regretting words spoken in haste, or wishing an impulsive act could be taken back (like firing off an angry e-mail) is a familiar experience for many.

Others may find themselves hiding out, keeping silent or ignoring warning signs until they find themselves saying: “I should have seen it coming”, “I wish I was more assertive”, “Why didn’t I say something?”

Getting out of emotional ruts is not easy.

The impulse to attack or flee when under stress may seem natural, almost a part of one’s personality. Yet, emotional ruts are learned responses to emotional stress—often originating in childhood as ways of coping.

As adults, we can change our patterns of relating with others when we are under stress.

There are five steps to shifting out of emotional ruts:

Step 1. Recognize the rut

The best way to spot you’re in a rut is when you find yourself regretting your actions, noticing that you’re doing “it” again or finding yourself justifying your behaviour. The rut might feel like a well-worn track with a life of its own or it may seem to define who you are. You may be tempted to say: “That’s just how I handle stress.” Identifying your repetitive, predictable pattern is key to changing it. Other people are often familiar with the emotional ruts their work mates are trapped in.

Step 2. Identify the Pattern

Once you have noticed that a repetitive sequence of behaviour is ignited in particular situations, it is important to map the rut. What is happening when you lose it or avoid people or circumstances? What thoughts and feelings are occurring? What happens when your buttons are pushed? How does your response go against your goals and values?

After analyzing his behaviour, Tom realized his goal of being a great vice-president — and the value he placed on excellence — was being undermined by his abusive behaviour towards staff. Meanwhile, Hugh surmised that his goal of creating a healthy work environment and a cherished value, being fair, was lost when he hid in his office and deferred decisions to another day.

Tom noticed that when he received bad financial news he went into a blaming frenzy, looking for the “cause” and attacking the “culprit”. Hugh observed that when he heard about conflict between staff members, he retreated into his office, hoping they’d work it out themselves.

Step 3. Plan a new response

Once an emotional rut has been identified it can be changed. It is important to realize the triggers for problematic responses (bad business results, staff conflict, unfavourable feedback, missed deadlines) may recur and the feelings that accompany these inevitabilities are not likely to change. What can change is your response to these triggers and emotions.

Hugh and Tom realized staff problems and missed targets were a fact of life at times and that their feelings of helplessness or frustration were normal.

Instead of reacting angrily, Tom decided to take a walk and calm down before responding to disappointing news. Although not easy at first, Hugh chose to talk directly to staff members who were not pulling their weight rather than ignore the problem.

Step 4. Get Support

It’s easier to boost yourself out of an emotional response rut when other people help. Telling trusted colleagues, staff members or superiors that you are working on changing a pattern is useful. Asking people you can trust, to notice the changes you make or remind you if they see you in a rut, can increase your chances for success. This might seem risky at first, but remember that other people who care about you or work closely with you already know about your pattern and will probably be happy to help. Choosing a supportive colleague or subordinate can make changing your pattern easier.

Tom told colleagues and subordinates he was unhappy with his angry outbursts. He told people he would go for a walk rather than start yelling. Hugh told staff that he hoped they could settle differences, but that if they reached an impasse, to come and talk to him. He also invited people to feel free to tell him if they felt he was avoiding the issue.

Step 5. Keep at it

Emotional response ruts are difficult to change without practice. The good news is that because they tend to repeat, you’ll get lots of chances to try to change them.

The ruts won’t disappear without conscious effort. Fortunately, work will continue to present opportunities to practice.

Even Tom and Hugh still relapsed back into old patterns from time to time, despite great efforts and results. Sometimes they failed to notice the familiar track until they were well into a problematic response. But because they expected to run into bumps along the way, they persevered.

Jumping out of emotional ruts leads to greater interpersonal effectiveness, a sense of control over one’s life and increased alignment between goals, values and behaviours. It also means avoiding the sinking feeling that occurs when you realize, “I’ve been down this path before and I don’t like it.”

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at sunmail@newmangrigg.com

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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