Managing Workplace Hot Buttons

Managing Workplace Hot Buttons

 Do you ever wonder why you get upset when a colleague behaves in a certain way? Everyone has different triggers that upset them. These “hot buttons” signal that our values or expectations have been challenged. They typically develop early in life and operate almost unconsciously in adults.

How you manage your hot buttons, though, has a lot to do with how effective you are in the workplace. When a person feels emotionally upset, it is very difficult for him to react in a calm manner. If he gets angry or frightened, he will usually default into fight or flight behaviors. These destructive responses tend to escalate emotional tension and prolong conflicts.

You can learn how to control your hot buttons though.

First, you will have to identify what they are. We use the Conflict Dynamics Profile® instrument to measure people’s hot buttons. It looks at a variety of typical workplace hot button behaviors like untrustworthiness, abrasiveness, micro-managing, and hostility. Even without an instrument you can ask yourself, what kinds of behaviors in others make you upset?

Once you have identified particular behaviors that upset you, we recommend reflecting on why they do. The interesting thing about hot buttons is that people have very different hot button patterns. A third person’s actions may upset you, but not another colleague. So it is not the other person’s action itself, but rather your reaction to it, that is the key. Ask yourself what values underlie your particular hot button. Understanding your hot buttons makes you less susceptible to being thrown off balance by someone else’s behaviors.

When your hot buttons are pushed, it is easy to become angry and react to the other person with hostility or some other destructive behavior. This invites further reaction from the other person and conflict becomes enflamed. Instead, we recommend an approach we call Cool Down, Slow Down and Engage Constructively.

Cooling Down

Cooling Down involves regaining your emotional balance before dealing with the other person. There are a number of techniques that can be used to decrease negative emotions like anger or fear. Deep breathing can help dispel some of the nervousness associated with these emotions. Centering exercises found in the martial arts and mindfulness techniques taught in meditative traditions have been found to be particularly helpful in calming down.

Another approach involves reframing or reappraising the initial behavior that caused the upset in the first place. Research has shown that considering other, non-hostile ways of interpreting a situation can lower your emotional upset. When someone is late for a meeting it may be easy to get upset at him for his thoughtlessness, especially if he has been late in the past. Rather than acting out angrily at the moment, you could think about other possible reasons for his tardiness. This will enable you to cool down enough to be able to inquire about the situation in a non-reactive way. You can still hold him accountable if he has been careless, but you’ll be able to do it more effectively.

Slowing Down

Slowing down can also be important when emotions are running high. If your efforts at cooling down aren’t working, take a time out to give yourself some extra time. If you don’t, you may find that you will regret the next angry statement that comes out of your mouth.

Engaging Constructively

Once you feel more balanced it is possible to reach out to the other person to discuss the matter. At this point we recommend trying to understand the situation from his perspective. This can help you get a better handle on what is happening, as well as lower tensions. Sharing your own thoughts and feelings comes next. Finally, you can work collaboratively to come up with a resolution that works for both of you.

While we may always experience hot buttons, we can learn to manage them so that we can respond in a constructive, emotionally effective manner. When important issues are at stake, make sure you know how to cool your hot buttons.

About the Author
Tim Flanagan is the Director of Custom Programs at the Leadership Development Institute at Eckerd College and co-author with Tim of Developing Your Conflict Competence (Jossey-Bass, 2010). Craig Runde is the Director of the Center for Conflict Dynamics at Eckerd College. Patricia Viscomi is the Associate Director of the Center for Conflict Dynamics at Eckerd College.

Author: By Tim Flanagan, Craig Runde, and Patricia Viscomi

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