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Why you need to have the courage to call out bad behaviour

  • Calling out bad behaviour can incite fear.
  • But not addressing poor behaviour in the workplace can see a culture of disrespect, fear and low trust develop.
  • This article provides some techniques to address the neurological and physiological reactions associated with fear.

As leaders, it’s a sad fact that at some point you will come across someone who is behaving badly in the workplace. It may be someone who speaks poorly about another person or actively participates in office gossip. Perhaps it’s someone who is rude and disrespectful to you or one of your team members during a meeting or conversation. It may even be someone who is bullying or intimidating another person into doing something they’re uncomfortable with.

Experiencing this kind of behaviour in the workplace needs to be called out yet so often it isn’t. To call someone on their poor behaviour is frightening and very uncomfortable for most people, and it’s even uncomfortable to watch. It takes courage to do it, and part of the reason it’s so often not done, is because of the fear of potential consequences. Will you damage the relationship with this person? Will you be perceived as the one who is behaving poorly? Will you lose your job, particularly if the person is in a higher position to you? All very real fears. And fear is a curious thing.

…if we let fear stop us from addressing poor behaviour in the workplace we see a culture of disrespect, fear and low trust develop.

In her book Brave, Margie Warrell talks about the impor­tance of fear in our lives. She says that it is part of our DNA, designed to protect us. In today’s world, most fears are in our head and made up of non-life-threatening chal­lenges such as a fear of public speaking, fear of change, fear of being judged, fear of being alone and many more. If this fear isn’t managed or controlled it can take over your life, reduce your confidence, increase your stress and anxiety and keep you from doing anything outside of your comfort zone.

But if we let fear stop us from addressing poor behaviour in the workplace we see a culture of disrespect, fear and low trust develop, and we need organisations to have trust. In a study completed by Brown, Gray, McHardy and Taylor in 2014 found a positive relationship between trust in the workplace and financial performance, labour productivity and product or service quality in organisations. Similarly, Paul Zak author of The Neuroscience of Trust found that companies with high trust report 74 per cent less stress, 50 per cent higher productivity, 13 per cent less sick days and 76 per cent more engagement than organisations with low trust.

The physiology of courage

When faced with a situation that requires courage the body has a neurological and physiological reaction. Neurologically your brains perceive threats, both real or apparent, in the same way. When experiencing this threat or fear the amygdala, the little almond-shaped section of nervous tissue that sits in the limbic part of your brain responsible for your emotions, instincts and memory, goes into overdrive creating a chemical cocktail of adrenaline and cortisol. This triggers the fight, flight or freeze action required to keep you alive.

When this happens, the cerebral or pre-frontal cortex part of your brain, which is responsible for your sensible, rational thinking, stops working and you find it hard to think straight. That’s why, three hours later when you’ve calmed down, you can think of that witty, clever response. So it doesn’t matter if someone comes at you with a knife, or says something nasty, you have the same neurological reaction. Physically you may break into a sweat, your breathing becomes shallow and your heartbeat races.

So how then can you feel more comfortable calling out poor behaviour in the workplace?

Practise courage

In the 1960s the civil rights movement in America used exposure therapy to help students to peacefully protest against black segregation in Nashville. Workshops on the philosophy, tactics and techniques of non-violence were held by students prior to a sit-in or demonstration to help them to manage their fear and the responses they would likely receive from members of the community once the protests began.

By being exposed to these responses over a number of workshops the students were then able to manage their fears effectively, along with the responses they received, and this meant they could hold their ground in a calm and respectful manner. Three weeks after the commencement of their protests, they were successful in having black customers served at lunch counters across Nashville.

Like these students you can identify most scenario’s that poor behaviour could look like in today’s workplaces. By using exposure therapy for these scenarios, such as role playing with a trusted colleague, talking about ways to challenge with your team members, or even scripting out possible responses, when the situation arises you will be more practised at managing it.

Don’t forget to breathe

To manage the physical response to the amygdala, a simple breathing technique from Navy SEALs will help. They use a 4X4 method of deep breathing when in conflict situations. This involves breathing in through your nose for a count of four then breathing out through your mouth for a count of four. If you can do this three times, immediately after you become conscious that you are reacting it will help you to re-engage your pre-frontal cortex and respond more rationally and courageously.

By being courageous and calling out poor behaviour, people, culture and organisations will then start to change collectively. Through courage you set the example for others and employees can then start to live the values and standards within your organisation.

‘Be the change that you wish to see in the world,’ Mahatma Gandhi

Wendy Born can be contacted on 0418 872 528 or by email via

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