Bad Boss BS: “This meeting is tense.”

Four 2d characters stand close to but slightly apart from a 3d bad boss character.

Feedback conversations can easily spark an amygdala hijack and stop the analytical part of our brains — sparking a sort of fight or flight response which makes the conversation less effective. Bad bosses can spark this reaction without even noticing. So what is an amygdala hijack, what are the consequences and how can we get back to safety if we do feel attacked.

The term amygdala hijack was coined by psychologist Daniel Goleman in 1995. The amygdala is a cluster of cells near the base of the brain. This area of the brain helps to define and regulate emotions and the relationship of emotions to memory. It’s important in shaping how we feel and behave. An ‘amygdala hijack’ describes the bodies reaction to stress. It’s the equivalent of the fight or flight response which keeps us alive when faced with physical threats. But we can experience the same emotional response at times of anger, aggression fear or stress. Feedback conversations can surface all of these emotions, and as they escalate we can become more overcome by the chemical response in the body to these negative emotions.

In Crucial Conversations Patterson, Grenny, McMilan and Switzler reframe our fight or flight response as tending towards either silence or violence. In feedback conversations we’re no longer running scared from a big dinosaur or picking up a sharp stick and fighting — we’re usually shutting down or shouting out loud into the face of a bad boss.

Silence or Violence

Both silence and violence are extreme reactions. Extreme behaviours are quite often not as helpful as we think — and these two patterns of response can inhibit the value we get from feedback. A bad boss can trigger these responses in us — or they might even exhibit these behaviours themselves.

Silence can take a few forms. Some people will mask their true feelings in an interaction. They might agree on the surface, but secretly refuse to acknowledge a message or engage meaningfully with what’s being said. Others might avoid an issue, changing the subject mid conversations and steering back to areas of agreement, rather than more valuable areas to explore. Others might withdraw completely, ending a conversation or refusing to interact.

When we’re trying to interact with someone who is tending towards silence, the trick is to move back to the point where things started getting quiet. Both silence and violence occur when someone feels threatened, so getting back on to the safe ground and then exploring difference with sensitivity can help to overcome the negative emotional reaction.

The opposite to reactions of silence is violence. This doesn’t necessarily mean physical violence. In the workplace it’s much more likely that a bad boss acting with violence will use their words to dominate a conversation. This will only imbalance the interaction and reduce the chance of building shared understanding — but it’s hard to think straight when experiencing this reaction. Violence can look like controlling — speaking over the other person or changing subjects arbitrarily. It can see more labelling — and this can stray into direct attacks talking about people rather than behaviours and impact.

Errors are situational, not personal

When feedback conversations get heated it’s easy for us and the boss to get heated, and our emotional response can overcome our rational engagement. Strong emotions can seem as though they’re part the environment and we can begin to feel carried away by the mounting”heat” of a situation until we feel overwhelmed. When this happens, it’s difficult to get the conversation back on track. But we can help by remembering that situation don’t have emotions — people have emotions. By taking a step back, breathing and pausing at heightened moments, we’re better able to navigate them.

Illustrating the point made in the next paragraph — that each person in a feedback conversation occupies a slightly different reality.

Feedback is an equation. A boss brings observations, data and interpretations with the hope of achieving a positive change. But before we’ve put the work into the feedback conversation, we’re both occupying two different versions of reality. They have seen our behaviour from their point of view and the impact it’s had on them and others. This helps them form a story about us. But we usually live in a different bubble. We know our thoughts and feeling and our intentions. Good feedback conversations are about exploring these two worlds, constructing a Venn diagram where the two versions of reality comes into closer alignment — so that a set of shared ideas and expectations can shape the future. Bad bosses can make this more difficult. But we can take control, reflecting on the facts, slowing down the emotions (while still acknowledging them) and operating with more control that allows us to get the most out of the interaction.




I'm a Creative director at the BBC. I like words, design, data and magic. These are all my own views (apart from retweets. I borrowed those to look clever.)

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I'm a Creative director at the BBC. I like words, design, data and magic. These are all my own views (apart from retweets. I borrowed those to look clever.)

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