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How to handle a coworker who’s acting out from a place of fear

Fear is a human response to anticipating negative intent from the person across the table from you.

How to handle a coworker who’s acting out from a place of fear
[Photo: RapidEye/Getty Imafges]

Fears are the root cause of many unhelpful behaviors at the office—and yes, at home too. Take for example, the boss who rewrites your powerpoint deck. The colleague who always seems to “forget” to CC you or invite you to important meetings. The direct report who has either gone non-communicative or just complains to HR about feeling overworked and disempowered in his role rather than talking to you about it. The board member who writes scathing emails, but is always your best friend on the phone.

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Learning to have the right conversations, conversations that allow us to see beyond disruptive or harmful behaviors and get to the underlying fears that motivate them, is a crucial skill that we all need to develop. The problem is, it’s really hard—especially when someone is stonewalling or throwing barbs at you.

People who are acting out of fear rarely do so gracefully. Instead, they often exhibit fight, flight, or fear behaviors that we have a hard time recognizing as such because we are most likely feeling attacked, confused, or abandoned by them—which in turn triggers our own fear responses and behaviors, and the pattern continues. Sound familiar?

If someone starts undermining you, your first instinct might be to undermine them back, or just to avoid them, depending on how you deal with fear. If someone starts ignoring you or cutting you out, you might give them the same treatment, or send off a hotheaded message.

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We all know where that dynamic ends up: in toxic behavior—inability to work together or, worse, active subterfuge. It’s amazing how poorly adults can behave when their egos are bruised. Because that’s all it is, really.

We recently did a coaching project with the founding team of a leading retail start-up. Two of the three founders were no longer on speaking terms. They said they differed over strategy and vision for the company, but when you spoke with them one-on-one and asked about their visions for the company, they were maybe two degrees apart from each other.

It wasn’t until we asked them to trace the relationship back to when it was most productive, or at least civil, that we began to see a pattern emerge. These mistrustful work relationships are often not due to one singular event. There is normally a pattern of behavior that erodes trust over time until one or both parties say “Enough!”

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That’s when the finger-pointing starts:

  • “He always seems to take the credit.”
  • “She has the CEO’s ear.”
  • “He says the same thing right after me, and only then do people pile on.”
  • “She plays politics behind my back.”

But when we ask them about their own behavior and whether that might be upsetting their colleagues, they say innocently:

  • “I’m just reporting on what the team is doing.”
  • “Am I not allowed to speak to my CEO?”
  • “I’m done trying to change things.”
  • “I’m better at one-on-one meetings.”

The problem with getting our fears triggered is that we assume negative intent on the part of the person who triggered us while remaining convinced of our own sterling intent. Our primitive fear response does not run through the prefrontal cortex. Thus, it literally contains no sense or reason. It simply sees a colleague speaking over us in a meeting or not giving us credit, and it reacts as if that proverbial saber-toothed tiger is sprinting across the savannah at us.

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We help a lot of professionals learn to understand and manage their own fear responses. The following is to help you develop a keener eye for detecting when you are triggering a fear response in someone else.

Before we go any further, let us be clear: It is never your job to accept abusive or inappropriate behavior from anyone. This is not about you turning the other cheek when someone is emotionally abusive or worse. What this is about is helping you to develop the ability to recognize fear-based behavior when you see it and to learn to choose how you respond to it.

For simplicity’s sake, let’s break it down into a simple list:

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  • Workplace behavior: Colleague cuts you out of meetings. Underlying fear: Colleague is feeling competitive and afraid of being outshone by you (fight or flight).
  • Workplace behavior:  Colleague redoes your work. Underlying fear: Colleague is fearful of making mistakes and feels a compulsive need to make everything 5 percent better (fight).
  • Workplace behavior: Direct report continuously does subpar or late work. Underlying fear: Direct report is so stressed and nitpicky she no longer tries (freeze).
  • Workplace behavior: Direct report surprises you with negative feedback in performance review. Underlying fear: Direct report does not feel safe enough to address concerns with you and feigns agreement and trust (flight).
  • Workplace behavior: Boss makes lots of last-minute and unreasonable demands. Underlying fear: Boss is triggered by the pace + stress of the job and can no longer think long-term, tries to control everything (fight).
  • Workplace behavior: Boss gives terse feedback and always seems irritated with you. Underlying fear: Boss is triggered by feeling unqualified for the job and externalizes that impostor syndrome onto you (fight).

Obviously, these are all random examples. Basically, the rule is that anytime someone comes at us with potentially hurtful or unhelpful behavior, we have a choice: react or get curious.

If we react, we will likely get triggered into fear ourselves, and we will escalate the situation by letting our own fears take over and run whichever fear script we are best at. Which means we will fight back, disappear, or just go quiet.

But when we get radically curious in the face of bad behavior, we sometimes have a chance to stop fear in its tracks. If we choose to get curious and confront our own fears and the fears of others, we have the opportunity to have compassion for the fear, which in turn gives us the chance to have a conversation about it.

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People around us are acting out of fear all the time. Compassion and curiosity for that fear are your first line of defense. Once you see it and shine a light on it, it often disappears.


Excerpted from Leading with Heart: Five Conversations That Unlock Creativity, Purpose, and Results by John Baird and Edward Sullivan Copyright © 2022 by John Baird & Edward Sullivan Reprinted by permission of Harper Business, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

John Baird and Edward Sullivan lead the executive coaching firm Velocity. They have a combined 50 years of experience in coaching leaders at the world’s top companies and start-ups including Apple, Nike, Google, Slack, among many others.

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