American Management Association

The Self-Defeating Habits of Otherwise Brilliant People®

Deadlines are short and support staff is a thing of the past.  Your days are long and projects are more complex with tighter margins.

No one understands the pressures you’re under and it’s been a long time since you’ve felt appreciated.

When another delay causes you to miss a deadline you explode—to your disadvantage.

Despite the fact that many workplaces tolerate, even admire, individuals who are skilled in rage and humiliation–trust me, it’s not a response you want to evoke.  It will come back to haunt you every time.

How we respond to frustration is one of the least examined and most important habits we have.  Studied, the right reaction can represent an opportunity for increased productivity and better relations with staff and colleagues.  If you’ve ignored the benefits of not placing blame or mistrusting others, you’re in for a pleasant surprise.  Addressing self-defeating habits may easily be your next source of gain.


Much of the training in conflict is based on resolution of behaviors after they’ve become destructive.  Few organizations teach leaders and employees how to avoid behaviors that cause unnecessary angst and waste.  Waiting until relationships break is fairly ineffective–similar to ignoring maintenance on equipment until engines break down.

Avoiding much of the negativity that occurs in today’s workplaces is sometimes as simple as giving up popular, but destructive responses such as self-righteous indignation.  De-toxing from righteous anger is difficult, because it’s an easy source of energy and for many individuals the most reliable way to quickly elevate the mood and bond with colleagues and peers.  It becomes the sugar high of over taxed leaders.

Malicious gossip, anger, rage, humiliation, and negative speculation about others adds unnecessary strain to workplace climates in five critical areas: 1) the bottom line, 2) mood, 3) health, 4) relationships, and 5) effectiveness.

Here’s how it works:  Stress and frustration are constant at work and individuals react with blame, anger and quiet denigration of others because the perceived advantages are visible and visceral.  It’s fun and it appears to quickly boost morale and take responsibility off one’s plate.  If I tell myself that the cause of a problem lies entirely in another person or department, and it’s all their fault and they can’t change, I can close the door, deny responsibility and ignore my role in creating the situation. 


This seemingly innocent behavior is the biggest source of overlooked waste in today’s disciplined and otherwise brilliant leaders.  Rudeness, anger and denigration of others in response to frustration are tolerated in organizations because, unlike the perceived advantages, the following costs are delayed and hidden.  What are the costs?


HEALTH   Anger is toxic.  Dr. Redford Williams, a psychiatrist at Duke, took a close look at “Type A” behaviors and that three of the four risk factors (being in a hurry, ambitious and competitive) are relatively inconsequential.  The risk factor that is linked to heart disease is the fourth–easy arousal to hostility.  Intense anger is called “flooding” in medical circles because anger floods our bodies with adrenaline, hormones and cortisol.

In addition, the blood thickens in an attempt to reduce the risk for potential injury, resulting in an increased risk for arteriosclerosis.  Since males were the hunters and took the majority of tasks that rely on speed and strength they are particularly vulnerable to flooding.

In the past women were protected by the clan so they could fulfill their role in feeding and caring for the infants.  However, in today’s society, stress is distributed equally regardless of gender, and heart disease is the number one killer of women.  Forty thousand women will die of breast cancer this year but 500,000 will die of heart disease.

EFFECTIVENESS   Anger dramatically reduces our ability to problem solve.  Anger occurs in the medulla, a walnut sized portion of the brain.  It not only knocks out the problem solving ability, but also creates likelihood that the other person will flood in response to our own anger and consequently will be unable to focus on the problem.  

Hostility also destroys the other person’s incentive to solve the issue.  One traumatized client said to me a year after her boss ridiculed her for an error, “I don’t really remember what I did wrong.  I just know how badly I felt when I walked out of his office.”  Her supervisor may have felt justified in his anger, but if his goal was to motivate his operator to change her behavior he activated the wrong brain function.  In reality, his intimidating and aggressive behavior weakened his ability to influence and motivate his direct report.

Anger results in lingering emotional stress.  The chemicals that are triggered by flooding remain elevated for two hours, but only if the threat is removed.  If the cause of your anger hasn’t been resolved, levels of hostility-related hormones and chemicals remain high, making it more difficult to maintain mood and momentum when the next frustration hits.

RELATIONSHIPS    It’s called payback or retaliation.  The formal name is reciprocity–the tendency for people to reciprocate behavior

You are the center of your universe and much of the behavior you see in others is a result of behavior you generate. There are three basic categories of behavior: hostile, (“Get out of my way”); indifference (“I don’t care about you or your project”); and warmth (“Hey, how’s it going?  Is there anything I can do to help?”)  Because other people’s responses are likely to be a reflection of what you initiated, each of three orientations to frustration is self-validating.  If I care about you, you return my good will and I feel justified in my initial impression.  If I treat you with contempt, you retaliate and I feel justified in my initial impression.

It’s self-defeating to treat people with disrespect and denigration because boldly or quietly, they will level the field.

Studies in Emotional IQ have confirmed the link between strong workplace relationships and productivity.  Even in highly technical workplaces employees that are isolated lag behind peers who have nurtured a network of support and talent.

Relationships matter.  It’s self-defeating to turn allies into enemies–even if your snide remark or negative speculation draw a crowd and makes you popular for a fleeting moment.  In reality, neutral parties silently lose confidence in your credibility and trustworthiness.

FISCAL CONSEQUENCES The bottom line suffers when anger and blame are substituted for a hardheaded search for solutions.  Managers can spend up to 50% of their time dealing with unresolved conflict and blame not only takes leaders off task, it alienates the people you need to fix the problem.  Organizations endure millions of dollars in waste and lost opportunities because their focus on people blinds them from taking action on the true cause of inefficiencies.

The antidote to anger is curiosity and concern.  Rather than triggering a power struggle over whose fault it is, look instead for systemic problems: miscommunications, poorly aligned performance measures and rewards, lack of planning, training, staffing, and information.

Initial forays into problem identification are full of assumptions.  It matters a great deal the kind of assumptions you make.  Rather than assume the other person is an incompetent or callous free loader, assume that he or she is reasonable and there’s a constraint or pressure driving their behavior.

This assumption you will help you avoid the stress of anger and flooding, the fight and flight response and a trip to the medulla, which will make you strong and fast, but at the expense of dulling your wit, good mood and intellect.

When you assume the other party has a reason for their behavior you access the cortex, the problem-solving engine of the brain.  Your irritation will convert to curiosity and concern.  Your inquisitiveness will trigger a desire to open the dialogue and engage in a search for data and solutions.


This subtle, but profound change will benefit your reputation, credibility, confidence, effectiveness, direct reports and bottom line.  When you offer a helping hand and by-pass an opportunity to exploit another person’s error for personal gain, your direct reports and peers will appreciate your sensible and compassionate approach and it’s highly likely they will return the favor just at the moment when you need it most.

Anna Maravelas is the founder of TheraRising and an internationally recognized expert in maintaining trust and commitment during periods of rapid change.  She is an adjunct professor at the Universities of Minnesota and St. Thomas and her book, How to Reduce Workplace Conflict and Stress, is published by Career Press.