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Dealing with Trade Unions - 7 March 2013

You might really detest boxing as a sport and yet, despite how you feel about it, you can probably recall the match back in 1997 between Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield. It was the one in which Tyson, after losing the first couple of rounds, reacted by biting off a piece of Holyfield’s ear before spitting it on the floor. He then took a second bite.

When the fight was stopped, Tyson continued his rampage by punching those who were trying to protect Holyfield. And then, upon being disqualified, he jumped into the crowd and verbally abused them until someone restrained him and took him away.

Tyson’s behaviour can be attributed to an amygdala hijack, a term coined by Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence. The amygdala is the part of the brain that reacts to intense emotions such as anger, fear, stress and anxiety. When the amygdala is hijacked by such an emotion, it blocks out rationality. That’s why it’s difficult to reason with people who are worked up. When they’re having an amygdala hijack, they’ll often react impulsively, overemotionally and sometimes aggressively.

Amygdala hijacks happen in the workplace as often as they occur in a boxing ring (but without the blood). These hijacks may impact employees when their employment is terminated. They may impact security teams when there’s company fraud. And they may even impact managers and trade union representatives when negotiations hit a brick wall.

In the latter case, it’s not unusual for managers and unions to have an antagonistic relationship. Managers often view union reps as combative, greedy and uncooperative, while union reps frequently view managers as ruthless, unfair and insensitive. It doesn’t really matter who’s right or wrong. What matters is that whenever conversations become heated, you can be sure that one or more of the parties involved has been hit by an amygdala hijack.

These situations are an opportunity to be a true leader. Upon noticing that the union reps – or you personally – have been impacted by an amygdala hijack, take the following actions.

If it’s the union reps:

- Display genuine empathy to show you understand their point of view.
- Take a break for 20 minutes and then resume once everyone has calmed down.
- Revisit areas of agreement and write them on a board to display progress.
- Be cognisant that amygdala hijacks can be contagious, which means that if you respond to fury with fury it’ll make the confrontation worse.

If it’s you:

- Pause, take a few slow deep breaths – six is recommended – and then continue.
- Visualise success by vividly imagining a positive outcome.
- Reframe the situation by seeing the union rep as an ally rather than a foe, as someone with whom you share a mutual desire for employees to be engaged.
- Notice the signs that you’re close to breaking point, such as clenched fists or heightened sweating, and use these as a reminder to wisely choose your next response.

Dealing with amygdala hijacks, in others and within you, always begins with awareness. It’s awareness of other people’s body language and emotional limits, as well as self-awareness of your own stressors and triggers. Neglecting these critical signs is what can turn minor disagreements into major conflicts. In effect, biting off more than you can chew.


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