Illustration by Heather Clarke

“Civility costs nothing and buys everything”, wrote Lady Mary Wortley Montagu hundreds of years ago in recording her world travel experiences.

“Mind your manners”, our parents reminded us in an effort to teach us to be respectful of others and garner respect for ourselves.

Despite this time-tested wisdom and first-hand guidance, however, we still see 21st century adults with respected professional titles exhibit behaviour in the workplace that throws etiquette out the window. I’m talking about outbursts that more resemble a child’s temper tantrum than a leader’s authoritative stance. Often, targeted blaming and outright contempt are not-so-subtly layered in.

After a couple of quite unbelievable reports lately from clients exposed to behaviour that I would describe as “SO not okay”, I turned to seasoned psychologist Barry Pokroy of Circle and Square Inc., to try to make sense of such extreme unprofessional conduct.

Why do we see this kind of …. I’ll just say it: ‘freaking out’ …on a regular basis from some people under pressure?

In the overall population this actually isn’t so common. But among people who do exhibit such behaviour, it may happen frequently for them.

These individuals aren’t very good at containing their emotions and responses to situations in which they feel threatened. Everyone’s brain has evolved to detect threats. Those who have had strong negatives emotions tied to adverse events in their past are particularly susceptible to a strong reaction, because the part of the brain that processes emotion is also largely responsible for memory.

It’s safe to say that the inner world of people who ‘freak out’ at others regularly isn’t a very comfortable or calm one. People tend to either internalize or project insecurity (that sense of being threatened), and the ones who project it outwardly can be quite difficult to deal with. Their explosiveness causes others to react to their frustration and that can escalate the situation.


I challenge my coaching clients to re-design professional relationships that aren’t working. Why does some such relationship-building hit a wall?

Around 85% of people think of themselves as very self-aware, but only 10-15% of people actually are. Relationships usually hit a wall when people aren’t fully aware of their own or others’ needs, or aren’t able to effectively deal with other people’s expressions of those needs.

Two of the most crucial questions to be asking yourself on a consistent basis are “what do I need?” and “what does this other person need?”.  A child doesn’t bother putting up a façade when tired or angry, and adults are still driven by the same basic emotional and physical needs. However, we’re a bit more sophisticated in our approach. So, for example, someone who craves validation may show up as arrogant if they are not self-aware enough to understand their underlying needs and their impact.


So there are some people who simply have limitations in their ability to relate to others effectively?

Yes. 5% of people don’t have the capacity for healthy handling of their emotions or building effective relationships. This small piece of the population must be managed through ‘consequences’ instead of ‘relationship’.

That means, of course, that vast majority of people (95%) don’t have any limitations to building mutually respectful and beneficial relationships given the right circumstances. That is, we can lead and collaborate effectively other people through the strength of our relationship with them. So it’s very much worth putting in every effort to creating strong relationships.


How can we identify a behaviour that’s not fixable?

There are three ‘tells’ that let us know if someone belongs to the 5% of people who really cannot build healthy relationships and communicate accordingly:

  1. An inability to “walk in someone else’s shoes.”

The technical term for this is ‘Mentalization’. Most of us have this capacity. We understand that our own knowledge, feelings and thoughts aren’t necessarily known by other people. In a high-pressure and fast-paced corporate environment, it’s easy to forget or dismiss this.

  2. An inability to express emotions maturely and effectively.

The term for this is ‘Affect regulation’. Most people can regulate their emotions by paying attention to them and not being overwhelmed by them. Some people consistently over-regulate, where they actually won’t show or experience emotion at all, while others under-regulate (this is your ‘freaking out’).

  3. Unbalanced relationships.

‘Reciprocity’ is the ability to give and take in a relationship; we read cues and tend to act in ways to keep things balanced. You may notice that some people are compulsive givers or extreme takers, and both are damaging behaviours.


What’s the best way to manage a “5% person” if you’re stuck working with them?

Communication with these folks is very different than under normal circumstances. They need to be worked with in using the language of ‘consequences’, as in, “if x happens/doesn’t happen, then the result will be y.”

Disengage emotionally. Set this boundary to protect yourself, and to contain the damage so that it doesn’t poison the team. It is very easy to take on the emotional toxicity of someone like this, but particularly in a leadership role, you must model what you want from others. Exemplify firm kindness and debrief issues objectively. Be vigilant about avoiding gossip, or trying to gain more people on ‘your side’ under the guise of problem solving.


Any overall words of wisdom?

Communication and relationship norms vary greatly across company cultures. Your office might look like a circus or a library from the outside, and if it’s getting the job done, that’s what counts, as long as there is an underlying respect for ensuring a healthy work environment. In that vein, are some behaviours that are objectively unacceptable, including:

  • Managing through threats or intimidation
  • Humiliating or ridiculing someone for their mistakes
  • Stealing credit and taking unfair advantage
  • Lying, or spreading malicious rumours
  • Manipulating information to set up a subordinate for failure
  • Belittling a person’s opinions

Ask a trusted peer or a mentor if you need help judging the situation impartially. If the situation demands it, take action to put your wellbeing first.