Burn After Reading – Why knee jerk reactions need to be kept at bay

About a year ago my boss, a seasoned recruiter and government employee, called a staff meeting. He predicted the tough economic times to come and although he ended the meeting on a hopeful note, he warned us of the oddities we would begin to see in human behavior.

Inevitably, when times get tough, people begin to stress out and consequently, lash out. Working in HR, I’ve been up close and personal with the RIFs and other effects of the budget cuts. I’ve seen the toll it takes on everyone involved and can sympathize with those who have been or will be affected by this economy.

That being said, I’ve seen some ghastly things in this past year. Most of them, in my opinion, are inexcusable and counterproductive. For those of you unfamiliar with the colloquialism, a knee jerk reaction is when you react without thinking everything through. The reaction is usually aggressive and in most times will produce a negative consequence. Some examples are when an email is cc’d to almost everyone in the agency when it’s really no one’s business, threatening legal action just because you’re upset, threatening to quit without notice, etc. I’ve seen a lot more of this in recent times. What I don’t understand is what people believe it will accomplish. For those of us working in the government sector, we know how small the networks can be and lashing out when you’re angry does you no good other than a release of adrenaline. The hardest thing to do when someone pushes your buttons is to not react at all. Although I try hard to respond to my emails in a timely manner, there are also instances where I will wait 24 hours to respond to ensure my frustration has disappeared and my thinking is clear. It delays the process a little bit, but it has saved me a lot of unnecessary inconveniences in the future. I’m wondering, does anyone else have any stories or tactics that have worked for them?

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Amanda Blount

Well, if you look at life in general, these statments should be applied to everyday relationships all the time. I have seen parents go completely off if their child brings home one C or if a younger one spills something, etc. So, it is no surprise to me when I see these same adults, in the work environment, react the same way. I believe it is a control or fear issue. My opinion is when the world seems to be coming apart for some people, they feel helpless, and reacting strongly may be their way of showing they still have control over the situation. Almost every adult has seen someone get mad and storm out of a job. I seriously believe this is just the beating of the chest reaction. They are basically saying, “Look at me, the more noise I make, the less the world will want to get me.” Yes, I totally agree there are many times to get upset over something unfair, illegal, or something your really believe in. But, normally it just makes for a bad day, and upsets everyone around you. Have I been guilty of it? Well of course.Typically, when I am upset, I ask myself a set of questions. 1) If I back down will it really matter in the long run? 2) Am I fighting for a good cause, or personal pride? 3) Will anyone care about this situation is I died right now? 4) If I choose to fight, do I have a plan B if things go really, really bad? (basically another job) 5) Can I look at myself in the mirror if I just let this go? 6) And this may be one of the important ones – When was the last time the person I am disagreeing with be given the chance to win an argument, and will it really hurt me, or anyone else, to give them that chance right now? ( I used to use this one a lot with my kids)

These questions to not have to be answered all at once. All of these questions may be asked over a few days. For instance, I remember once I was dead on right about a situation. I won the argument / discussion fair and square. But, to what ends? A few days later, I went back to the person, and told them we were both right, and we should try what they suggested instead. I apoligized for being such a “B”, and told them I would help them do what they wanted to do. We have been good friends ever since.

Do I do that all the time? I wish! I am human and a opinionated human at that. I wish I was that good all the time. I am getting better with age. As I get older, I do try to remember I am only one little cog in the machine. I also remember there are many Right ways to get where we are going. I don’t have to be the only one right. In situations, there may be many right answers.

And one more reason to occasionally play nice – “Burning all your bridges leaves you on an island.”

D. Rizzo

Take deep breaths, let them out slowly & if possible go for a walk around the building, block or whatever. If you have a good friend outside your employment who will allow you to blow off some steam to them without compromising your employers mission & your future, then maybe you can rant & rave to them. The bottom line is that you want to avoid looking/sounding like an angry nut case because you may well have a legitimate perspective & the other entity is the real nut who is trying to divert attention away from themselves by pushing your buttons. Or they’re not nuts, just wrong. Take the time & breaths to calm down & then gather the facts to present a clear, logical, common sense perspective. Usually getting angry & screaming or becoming disorderly only makes things worse for you. Take it from a 25 year veteran cop (Ptl.-Lt.). You will be perceived as a mature, reasonable person. Now, also remember that this takes an effort, thought and self control. You are human and everyone makes mistakes. If things go in a negative direction, make sure you apologize, make things as right as possible & move on. I’ve learned that if someone is upset about something, very often they just want to be heard & want a little help because they are hurting inside. Try to see things from other perspective because very often other people do not know what someone else does. As Woodrow Wilson & someone long before him said, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” I apologize for any spelling errors or other mistakes. I’m still a little loopy after laparoscopic hernia surgery earlier today. I think I’ll hit the rack soon w/ some meds too. Stay alert, be safe & have fun. Best, Don


Agreed. Very rarely does reacting negatively help the case even when you are wronged. Occasionally you have to stand your ground but that can be done in a very professional way.