How to Steer Clear of a Workplace Smackdown — Even If You’re Not an NFL Coach)

Posted 10.17.2011

The most talked about moment from week six of the NFL season was the near-miss post-game smackdown between San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh and Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz. As you can see in this video, when the 49ers eked out a win over the previously undefeated Lions, Harbaugh literally started jumping for joy. By the time he got to Schwartz for the post game handshake, he was really jacked up, grabbed Schwartz’s extended hand and slapped him on the back – hard. As the video was endlessly replayed on TV last night, you didn’t have to have a masters’ degree in lip reading to see that Schwartz was not too happy about the exchange. He was so unhappy, in fact, that he chased Harbaugh 30 or 40 yards down the field to the end zone to, umm, continue the discussion.

I read some of the sports columnists from the San Francisco Chronicle and the Detroit Free Press this morning to get the local angles. While both papers agree that Harbaugh got carried away in his celebration, Schwartz is taking more of the heat for losing his composure.

You don’t have to be an NFL coach to lose your temper at work. It’s even possible that you could get so ticked, you feel like running after someone and throttling them. Not a good idea. That sudden rush of anger is the “fight” part of the fight or flight response that comes from a little part of your brain called the amygdala. When you have a sudden urge to throttle someone, you’re experiencing what emotional intelligence pioneer Daniel Goleman calls an amygdala hijack. The fight or flight response was actually pretty useful when our Flintstones era ancestors never knew if a saber tooth tiger was the next thing coming around the corner. It’s not so useful in a professional setting (even the post-game sidelines of an NFL stadium).

So, with Coach Schwartz as inspiration, here are three things you can do to avoid a smackdown situation the next time you lose your cool.

  • Prepare Yourself: As the final seconds ticked down on the game, Schwartz knew his team was going to lose. He probably didn’t know he was about to get whacked on the back by the opposing coach. Still, he’s been around the game long enough to know that post game emotions run high. When you know you’re going to be in an emotion laden, high energy situation, it’s helpful to mentally prepare by visualizing how you want to handle yourself. Having a clear picture in mind of how you want to show up makes it more likely that you’ll show up that way.
  • Take a Deep Breath: There’s a reason you hear this advice so much. It works. As reported on NPR, researchers at the National Institute for Mental Health tell us that slow, deep breathing stimulates the Vagus nerve which counteracts the “smackdown” reaction that comes from an over stimulated amygdala. Work on training yourself to take three deep breaths when something unexpected happens. It could give you the space you need to respond rather than react.
  • Talk to Yourself: After you’ve put the brakes on yourself by breathing, talk to yourself about what you should do next. Doing so can remove you a bit from the situation at hand. If you have the space, you might even talk out loud to yourself. Literally hearing yourself talk can be a bit like having a coach or trusted advisor at your side reminding you how things might play out if you run with your rage.

What do you do to regain your composure when someone really ticks you off?