Keeping Cool in Heated Conditions

Fall is upon us with its crisp autumn air. That does not mean that things can’t heat up in the workplace though. All it takes is a little work stress or a misplaced word, to cause heated conditions. With those fiery conditions come heightened emotions, causing reactions instead of responses to the people around us and the events unfolding. When you are frustrated or upset, it can seem like your internal thermostat is set to eighty degrees.

Heating and cooling units change temperatures by flipping a switch in a mechanical thermostat that has no thought or reasoning. Our human thermostats work a little differently. We are reactionary human beings that can reason and use critical thinking skills. We all have a small part of our brain that links emotions to a fear response, which results in heated behaviors. We have to use skills such as emotional intelligence and critical thinking skills to monitor our responsive temperatures. These skills help to keep the focus on personal behavior instead of looking for another person to take the heat.

The Association for Talent Development identified the importance of this skillset in a recent article that suggested emotional intelligence helps us to have a better understanding of how to manage emotions. When the responsive part of your brain starts working, you can achieve more informed action that helps you to expand the options for how you can respond.

For example, if you find out that someone has made a costly mistake, your first thought might be to either attack the person by yelling or avoid the situation in a fight or flight response. Reactive fight or flight actions move you backward with blame and worry. If you lean toward a fight response, you may find yourself yelling at individuals or telling people they are to blame for the state of things. With flight, you may choose to avoid the condition and talk about people behind their backs, or you may speak of the situation without looking for a solution. An article featured in Theeducationalleader identified this type of flight response and its relationship to fear.

Respond instead of reacting, and you’ll manage this fight or flight behavior and find solutions that move you forward. Responses based on controlled actions move you forward and toward solutions. The value-added for a response is effective problem-solving, more efficient use of time, and improved culture. Problem-solving becomes more effective because you put your energy toward looking at the multitude of possible actions that are available based on the place you are currently working. Time becomes more efficiently spent on working towards these solutions instead of playing the blame game or rehashing the story of what occurred. Responsive actions also shape a workplace’s culture. In The Culture Book, published by Weeva, Inc. and Culturati, Elijah May noted that you define culture by the worst behavior that you are willing to tolerate.

Just like the systems that are in place for managing a project, there are systems in place that regulate the culture and behaviors of an organization. A reactive set of actions weakens the overall interpersonal and behavioral systems; just an ineffective project management system weakens the success of a project.

Calm responses lead to more refreshing behaviors. Heated reactions disrupt the flow of work. The next time you are confronted with a heated situation, consider how you could handle your response to keep it from going from the frying pan into the fire.

Here is a behavioral process you can use to maintain the focus on staying cool when you feel frustrated or upset about a person or situation:


1. Take a Moment

Reactive behaviors are made at the moment. When you put a natural pause into the event, you give yourself time to respond. Think about the culture you are trying to create, not only for your team, but for yourself. Put a name to the behaviors you would like to maintain, such as friendly, efficient, or calm. These are foundational words that help you support yourself and others. Well-defined words help preserve calm behaviors.


2. Gather Information

During that moment of pause, take time to try and look at all sides of the event. The more perspectives you can gather, the better able you are to make informed decisions. Gathering information also offers you a way to make everyone involved feel as they have been heard. You might find that the truth lies somewhere in the middle of all the individual perceptions.


3. Create a Revitalizing Narrative

Words and actions create the environment. If the narrative is, “you are wrong,” then you heat the emotions by putting negative values on people instead of defining conditions in a different story that says, “this behavior is not acceptable.” The narrative shifts, giving you a different viewpoint of the same event. One fractures the behavioral system; whereas, the other addresses the situation and looks for a solution.


4. Keep the Focus on Forwarding Momentum

This does not mean that you can’t have emotions. It means you put the feelings on the back burner until the incident resolves in a way that moves everyone forward toward the solution instead of backward toward the frustration. Reactive behaviors move the occasion backward with blame and worry. Responsive actions retain the focus on finding solutions and managing activities.

So, the next time you walk by a thermostat on the wall, remember that you have a choice in how you control the temperature of a challenging situation.


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Written by Dr. Lynette Reed
Writer, researcher and advisor on human potential for personal and organizational development, Dr. Lynette Reed has mentored people from in businesses, not-for-profits, schools, allied health agencies, chambers of commerce, government and churches. She has taught courses on team building, leadership, ethics, world religion and world cultures. Her current literary contributions include an executive summary paperback titled, Fixing the Problem: Making Changes in How You Deal with Challenges, as well as book contributions, articles, guest radio appearances and a series of children's books with Abingdon Press. She is also a co-founder and board member of the Institute for Soul-Centered Leadership at Seton Cove. Lynette holds a Doctor of Ministry in Spirituality, Sustainability, and Inter-Religious Dialogue and a Master of Science in Communication Sciences and Disorders. Contact her at

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