Don’t feed your troll!

Posted by Sean Worrall
27 Feb

(…or how to stop hating your co-workers)

Sometimes it happens like this: you’re merrily going about your work, nothing remarkable has happened, then boom! You read an email from a co-worker and it wrecks the rest of your day.

Or worse still: the email goes ping, you see the sender’s name, and even before you click open you feel cross, you’ve rolled your eyes and concluded: “I hate this guy!”

In Internet slang, a troll is a person who starts quarrels or upsets people to distract and sow discord by posting inflammatory and digressive messages with the intent of provoking readers into displaying emotional responses.

Intentional trolls do exist at work, but they’re much rarer than you might imagine. Workplace trolling is mostly accidental. And I think that the biggest troll lives inside ourselves.

When I ask people what they’d like to change about the email scenes above, they commonly say: “I want him/her to stop saying/doing stuff like that.” But what you really want is to stop feeling upset by them, isn’t it? Let’s talk about how to do that.

Stop feeding your troll. Better yet, break his fingers. Or at least put a shield in front of your personal hot buttons.

In her best-selling book Conversational Intelligence, the late Judith E. Glaser drew on neuroscience research to create what she called ‘The Ladder of Conclusions (or making stuff up)’. In the blink-of-an-eye from hearing/seeing something you don’t like, to concluding that the other person is an enemy, you’ve climbed the ladder of conclusions.

It starts with a bio-reaction in the gut, and the release of cortisol and other stress hormones. That triggers feelings, which we then turn into thoughts, which we compare against patterns of previous experience and hey presto – a conclusion (usually confirming a previous bias).

The bio-reaction is in response to threat, or what we fear. To help define fears here, I’ll use William Moulton Marston’s DISC personality model. [We use a variety of psychometrics at Dramatic Difference]. The DISC model proposes 4 broad personality types which sit in the quadrants of two behavioural dimensions: (roughly) Fast v Slower-paced + Questioning v Accepting.

Dominance: needs results, fears failure.
Influence: needs recognition, fears being ignored.
Steadiness: needs harmony, fears conflict.
Conscientious: needs to be right, fears being wrong.

In reality we are each a blend of all four types, but we tend to have a preference. And these can be expressed with differing degrees of strength.

For example, I’m a moderate “I” type: I don’t have a fear of failure; I enjoy a vigorous debate; and I quite like being proved wrong because it means I’ve learned something new. The buttons my troll can press are about recognition: “You’re not being noticed.”

What about you? Once you know what your fear is, you can bring it into consciousness and start to do something about it. And – crucially – you can start to better anticipate the fears of those around you. Look out for signs of anger or defensiveness or fear – they are all related and indicate a ‘hot button’ has been pressed. Author Liza Palmer has said “Angry is just sad’s bodyguard” but it would be closer to the truth to say that anger is fear’s bodyguard.

Here are my top tips for breaking your troll’s fingers:

1. Recognise that it’s your troll causing trouble 

Your troll (your fear) creates the bad feeling in you. It’s happening in response to the other person but you have a choice. Accept that truth.

2. Be generous with your interpretation

Arrest the desire to label the other person as an ‘enemy’ or a ‘bad guy’ and ask: “What else could be happening here?”

3. Rate your feelings on a scale of 1-10
– If it’s less than 4, shake it off.
– If it’s up to 6, breathe. Wait and see if it changes.
– If it’s more than 7, deal with it.

4. How to deal with it: pick up the phone, or grab a coffee

Email or text is a terrible way to resolve fear and anger. It’s a medium that’s ripe with passive (and not so passive!) aggression, and generally escalates things. Drop me a comment on the blog and I’ll send a free copy of the Dramatic Difference “I statement…” template. It’s a conflict-free way to express what you’re feeling and what you want.

5. Set clear boundaries, and police them

If you want less sour, you gotta dial back the sweet. Don’t expect people to behave in ways you want, without having made clear what you want in the first place. I love Brené Brown’s simple ‘Okay/Not Okay’ tool here: E.g. “It’s okay to feel angry, it’s not okay to shout at me.”

Remember: high performance people connect to themselves and others at an empathic level. Where you have strained relationships, that trigger you easily, you need to connect or reconnect.

If you’d like to learn more about effective dialogue (whether in conflict or not), get in touch and we can share how we work with our C4 Model for High Performance Communication.

Sean Worrall @ Dramatic Difference seanw@dramdiff.com

Dramatic Difference is a boutique learning and development consultancy. Across Asia-Pacific, we are creative partners for organisations developing high performance people and cultures. We design and deliver executive coaching, facilitation, and theatre-led learning for leaders, teams and individuals.