Aggression causes a lot of tension. Anywhere; in the workplace, at home, or within oneself.

I was talking recently to a friend and his wife. They were both stressed due to his working with a hostile boss. The boss was dismissive, critical, aggressive, and emotionally charged. He always had the last word, did not appreciate clarifying, and induced fear. My friend has begun to develop health problems as a response to stress.

The Psychology of Hostility

Coaching Example: I recently worked with a leader in sales. Brazen, aggressive, and over-focused on the outcome. While his communication was great with clients it was as bad with internal teams. Internal teams saw him as uncooperative and brash.

Colleagues complained that he did not listen, was curt and arrogant, and came across as having no tolerance for requests made by colleagues. When I spoke to his boss at the commencement of coaching he said   ‘I wish he regarded his colleagues with half the respect that he gives external clients’.

This leader had developed a pattern of being angry as that was his way of getting the attention of other people. Each time he felt anxious he covered it up with aggression. He shared how his growing years were more manageable because he grew in his confidence through his aggressive style. 

A hostile person is like a cactus with spiny unapproachable parts on the outside. But they are oozing with other feelings on the inside. They are possibly dealing with self-disapproval in their mind.

Maybe they are tired of the solutions they have tried for their issue. It may be an adaptation to deal with unmet needs during their growing years. It goes by the saying “hurt people, hurt people.” See this image to understand clearly.

Hostility is complicated in that it masks many other feelings underneath. The feelings associated are overwhelm shame, guilt, fear, sadness, and anxiety. It has not manifested itself overnight, but accumulated over the years, slowly and steadily.

A hostile leader’s impact on teams

1. Stressed employees. Teams feel nervous, and constantly on the lookout.  The anxiety spills into their personal lives.

2. Sub-standard work. Teams are not motivated, procrastination can set in. People doubt their capabilities. Deadlines suffered.

3. Low level of creativity at work. Teams when stressed become more mechanical and little out-of-the-box thinking is done.

4. Connection and relationship erosion. The leaders’ distrust leads to teams not trusting each other and the manager. Time is spent saving one’s skin and blaming one another.

 Shifting out of hostility

Moving out of hostility requires immense patience. Like it took many years to build this habit, it takes time to shed it. The progress is never linear. This process should be handled with empathy and care.

If you are a hostile person here is what you can do:

To know if you are becoming hostile, notice the energy in your body. We feel clamped and our muscles tighten. For some of us, our face scrunches up, and our stomach and shoulder muscles get tightened. You may even hold your breath. The first step is notice. 

The second step is accepting that other people have reactions to you. You can see this in their responses to you. Another big self-awareness tip is reflection. You may have already received much feedback on this from various places. You are aware of the many times you had run-ins with your directs, peers, or higher-ups too. 

Ask yourself, “Why am I feeling this way? Why do I react this way? What is causing my anger and impatience?” 

1. Take notice.  A good indicator is to observe the triggering thought or feeling.

2. Name it. Progress begins when you have named the causative feeling or thought.

3. Acknowledge. By assuming responsibility for your behavior, your team will begin to trust you.

4. Tune into your body. Scan your body to spot the place for any discomfort. This visceral spot that holds the conflict contains bottled-up information.

5. Communicate with the stuck discomfort. At first, it may look like you are taking time to sit still, just noticing the stillness. Tune into what your intuition is communicating about your discomfort. Almost always, there is an answer. If short on time, breathing through this discomfort will help.

6. Accept the surfacing emotions. All the associated suppressed emotions will reveal themselves. It will just be easier to blame it on another when this happens. Being true to yourself, and accepting the feelings as they are will heal you faster.

7. Reach out. Navigating through the range of emotions can be tough. A coach can help

8. Celebrate small victories.  This is underrated. Every small step away from the start position shows courage and strength. Enjoy small milestones.

All this is emotionally draining. Taking help from the family will help. Having real conversations with loved ones to communicate any expectations to help stay on the path will work. Even having a mentor, an accountability partner, or a friend to vent frustrations can help.

Self-care during this period is crucial. Take care by eating nourishing food, getting adequate sleep, exercising, doing activities with family members, spending time in nature, or hobbies that nourish you. A natural outcome of this is giving yourself permission to accept anything as is.

If you are dealing with a hostile colleague or leader here is what you can do:

1. Clarify with them in confidence. It will clear up any assumptions made by you, and solidify your view. This will also help bring to the surface the reasons behind their behavior, through their lens.

2. Meet with the member and other people who may feel this hostility. Set up an open, gentle, and safe space for everyone involved to express themselves freely. Seek to listen rather than jump to conclusions or offer advice. Cancel appointments, and shift meetings if any, and switch all devices to silent mode. Show you are listening and give your full attention.

3. Remain calm and composed. Such conversations can feel intense. If it is a team situation and it is facilitated others will expect that it is done with utmost care and respect. It is wise to pause the meeting at any time it gets uncontrollable.

4. Offer constructive feedback. The workspace is only as good as its employees. In a hostile team environment offer feedback only when the team has reached the emotional stability to accept it. Feedback to a hostile team colleague has to be only 1-1 so it feels safe for the other. 

5. Be patient. Change requires consistent practice. Offer support through counseling or referrals to relevant workshops so the person feels more skilled in handling themselves. 

6. Recognise any small change, appreciate it, and be an ally. Everyone likes to be seen and validated. Celebrate considerable shifts. Make a gesture of kindness and peace and be the first one to show it to the other.

Empathy as a leader is a big strength.  Pay attention and develop it. 

Two talks you may also find valuable to be resourceful in this area are here. 




Let me know which idea in this blog you resonated with.

Sailaja Manacha

Sailaja Manacha

Sailaja Manacha, a Master certified Coach from ICF, is known for her programs and coaching methods that combine psychology with leadership practices. In her work, Sailaja draws from Psychology, Ontology, NLP and Spiritual frameworks as well as rich, real-world experiences.

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