Promising Practices Promising PracticesPromising Practices
A forum for government's best ideas and most innovative leaders.

Before You Fly Off the Handle at Work, Consider This


Is your boss or a co-worker increasingly irritable, angry, withdrawn or acting in a predatory manner? Or are you noticing that behavior in yourself?

With rising demands in today’s workplace, emotional and behavioral disorders have soared. In Untangling the Mind: Why We Behave the Way We Do, Dr. Ted George, clinical professor of psychiatry at George Washington School of Medicine and neuroscientist at the National Institutes of Health, helps us understand America’s surge in emotional and behavioral disorders, including those we see in the workplace. Grasping why we instinctively react in certain ways is the first step in affecting change.

From a neuroscience perspective, these disorders arise when the emotional part of the brain (the amygdala) overrides the rational part of the brain (the cortex). According to George, the neuro-connections between the cortex and the amygdala control the emotions/behaviors that have their final pathway in the periaqueductal gray (PAG), a little-known structure in the middle part of the brain. Looming deadlines, unrealistic expectations, unhealthy competitions, certain facial expressions or tones of voice, and even exclamation marks in emails can serve as threats that weaken these neuro-connections.

When you feel threatened, you become more susceptible to emotion-driven reactions such as:

  • Anger that triggers the fight response
  • Fear that triggers the flight response
  • Depression that triggers shutdown
  • An absence of emotional anger that triggers predatory behavior

Research shows that 70 percent of U.S. workers (88 percent of workers globally) are not working optimally. In previous articles, I have written about steps leaders can take on an organizational level to improve engagement. I have found George’s work to be insightful when an individual employee’s extreme emotions or behaviors are disrupting the workplace.

There are a number of healthy ways that people struggling with emotional and behavioral disorders can find relief. One strategy is to reduce sensory input through meditation and prayer, undertaking a relaxing activity, and/or getting away on a vacation. Another strategy is to calm the nervous system by lowering or eliminating caffeine and alcohol intake, taking deep breaths, and/or exercising vigorously. While these actions often provide temporary relief, they do not address the underlying cause.

George’s strategy entails working with people to identify and address the threat that is the catalyst to their emotional or behavioral disorder. Threats could include “my sales are under plan,” “my boss doesn’t like me,” “my colleagues are excluding me,” “that person is smarter than I am.” To help people identify the particular threat setting them off, George has them verbalize what they are feeling and take a personal inventory of their behaviors. The process of talking through their emotions and behaviors guides people to see whether the threat is real or perceived.

Once the threat is identified, he aids people in developing realistic expectations and a plan of action. For example, this includes determining whether their boss or colleague is open to addressing the underlying issue. Throughout the conversation, George encourages people to enjoy the sense of personal satisfaction that comes from taking active control of the situation rather than thinking of themselves as passive victims.

Using George’s “talk therapy” approach strengthens the rational brain so that it exerts greater control over the emotional brain and is less likely to be “hijacked” by it in the future. This approach provides the best long-term solution because it addresses the underlying problem rather than treating symptoms. However, if anger, fear or sadness persists, it may be time to seek professional help.

As you see evidence of “fight or flight,” withdrawal or predatory behavior in your workplace, engage the rational part of your brain through conversation with a trusted adviser to assess and address the threat underneath. By taking action to help yourself, your boss and/or your co-workers, you will improve your work environment and help improve the performance of your organization.

This article provides a general explanation of complex issues. I highly recommend reading Untangling the Mind. If you have questions about emotional or behavioral issues in the workplace, e-mail them to me at

Michael Lee Stallard, president of E Pluribus Partners, speaks, teaches workshops and coaches leaders. He is the author of Fired Up or Burned Out: How to Reignite Your Team’s Passion, Creativity and Productivity (Thomas Nelson). Follow Stallard on his blog, TwitterFacebookGoogle+ or on LinkedIn.

Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by G Suite

    Cross-Agency Teamwork, Anytime and Anywhere

    Dan McCrae, director of IT service delivery division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.