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Monday, April 18, 2016

Handling Hostility at the Workplace

[This write-up was published as an article in the Recruit portion of the Straits Times, Singapore’s leading newspaper, on January 16, 2016. ]

Background and motivation for this write-up:

One day at work, I happened to witness a hostile exchange between two colleagues. Emotions ran high and there was a lot of negative energy flowing. Nothing productive or conclusive emerged from the exchange – the only outcome was that the participants’ blood pressures were significantly elevated! As I reflected on this incident during the rest of my workday, I thought about what I could learn from this.

Wikipedia defines hostility as emotionally charged angry behaviour. In everyday speech, it is used as a synonym for anger or aggression.

Every one of us has, at some point of time, encountered hostility at the workplace. Learning to deal with hostility is a valuable skill. Here are a few ways you can manage hostility at the workplace effectively.

Keep your equanimity and composure at all times

Remind yourself that if the other person is rude or hostile, it is their problem - not yours. The person's behaviour should not affect your peace or blood pressure unless you allow it to.

Maintain your poise. While this is easier said than done, techniques like deep breathing, yoga and meditation - when practiced regularly - promote self-awareness and train you to deal with such situations better. Like all skills, the ability to handle stressful people and situations can be consciously developed through practice.

Motivate yourself by giving yourself small treats each time you handle a hostile person deftly. Your calm demeanor will make it clear to everyone that you are not going to get flustered even if someone shouts at you in an uncivil manner. Over time, there is a good chance that the offender will realise the futility of throwing a tantrum at you.

Do not yield to the hostile person’s unreasonable demands

While it might sound like an easy way out, yielding to the person's demands will only set you up for further trouble.

It will send a message to him or her that you can be pushed around by throwing a tantrum. While you should not respond emotionally to a hostile person, you should not send out a signal that you are a pushover.

Empathise with the person

While this might sound like a rather idealistic way of dealing with a hostile person, putting yourself in his or her shoes can help you manage the situation better.

This is not to say that hostility should be condoned or accepted. Empathising can help you stay calm and hence handle the person more rationally. It may also enable you to understand the underlying cause of the person's hostility.

Often, the underlying cause for hostility is insecurity. By mitigating the hostile person's fears, you might be able to eliminate the hostility over time. You might even win yourself a new friend or ally.

Prepare yourself

Mentally ready yourself before a meeting with a hostile person. Prepare yourself emotionally and remind yourself not to lose control.

Foods like chamomile tea and dark chocolate have the ability to reduce stress. You can use them as aids to boost your calmness. Remind yourself that you will not compromise your physical and mental health by getting flustered.

Find healthy ways to get rid of stress

If you do get stressed by hostile colleagues, find healthy ways to dissipate the negative energy by indulging in a creative hobby or exercise.

There are plenty of ways to do this - such as music, dancing, sketching, taking a walk in the park and spending time with loved ones. Develop the self-awareness to fmd out what works for you and indulge in such activities.

Have a Plan B for your career

It has been said that Anxiety = Uncertainty x Importance. This means that the more importance you attach to a situation, the more anxious (and stressed) you are likely to become.

On that note, a colleague of mine impressed me with his ability to maintain extraordinary grace even during extremely hostile circumstances at work. I once asked him what his secret was. He told me that he had an alternate career as a part-time fitness instructor. During stressful confrontations at work, he would remind himself that his life does not depend on his job, since he could always fall back on his Plan B. This freed him from anxiety and helped him to treat hostile colleagues as minor nuisances rather than major problems.

Having a Plan B also gives you a better chance of managing crises like economic downturns, job obsolescence or job loss. This security keeps your stress levels low and reduces the possibility that you might become a hostile person yourself.

However, if all else fails and you are stuck in an environment where hostility and rudeness are the norm rather than the exception, you should start thinking seriously about fmding a better place to work.

At the end of the day, it is important to remember that hostility is not a pleasant thing and you do not have to accept it as a part of your work life forever. While hostility cannot be eliminated from the workplace, you are entitled to look for workplaces that are - for most part - decent and civil environments.

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