New Approach to Reduce Dysfunctional Behavior at Work

Untangling the Mind Book CoverAs seen on Fox Business and SmartBlog on Leadership.

Is your boss or a co-worker increasingly irritable, angry, withdrawn or acting in a predatory manner?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, Ted George, M.D., 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 Dr. George, the neuro-connections between the cortex and the amygdala serve to 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, and/or
  • an absence of emotional anger that triggers predatory behavior.

Research shows that 70 percent of workers in America (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 Dr. George’s work to be very insightful when an individual employee’s extreme emotions or behaviors are disrupting the workplace.

There are a number of healthy ways people struggling with emotional and behavioral disorders 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.

Dr. 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,” etc.  To help people identify the particular threat setting them off, Dr. 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, Dr. George 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, Dr. 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 Dr. 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 advisor 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, email them to me at and I will use future articles to address common themes that arise from readers.

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