New research* suggests that if you’re willing to dish out negative behaviors at work, you’d better be prepared to take them. A meta-analysis of almost 100,000 people over 200 studies shows that negative behaviors (ranging from avoidance, to incivility, all the way up to bullying, and even violence) tend to be returned in kind. And if anything, those reciprocations were more likely to escalate the conflict, rather than deescalate it.

And don’t kid yourself; some of the most intractable, enduring team conflicts can start over the tiniest transgression. In our culture of busyness and overwhelm it’s so easy to give in to a moment of behaving impetuously only to find that you’ve inadvertently started a vicious cycle that can hamper both productivity and engagement.

Sure, you’re probably not going to get into trouble on a good day, but imagine a bad one. You’re stressed, you’re overworked, and you’re in self-preservation mode. So, you respond to legitimate and well-meaning feedback from a teammate with a sarcastic one-liner. Or maybe you actively snub a member of your team because you just can’t deal with them today. Or you bluntly criticize someone’s idea telling yourself that, “it’s not personal, I’m just trying to get to the right answer.” Be honest, how long has it been since you had a day (or even a moment) when you’re weren’t at your best?

How does this research make you think differently about those moments?

My guess is that at no point in a weak moment are you thinking that your innocuous little transgression is like launching a boomerang that will return to clip you upside the head. But now that you know it is, is it worth it?

When you’re tired, overworked, and overwhelmed, are you prepared for your sarcastic one-liner to come back at you as a nasty comment to the boss about your next idea? No? Then you’re going to have to get back in control of how you’re showing up on your team—even in the exhausted, overwhelmed, impatient moments. Here are a few do’s and don’ts to prevent unleashing a cycle of bad behavior on your team.

Good Behavior


  • Allow 3 seconds of silence before you speak to give your brain time to listen and process what your colleagues have said. Get into the habit of thinking, “what did she just say,” before you compose your retort.
  • Ask a question before making a statement. One little reflex of trying to understand the point better before adding to it (or disagreeing with it) will help ensure your comments are constructive.
  • Take frequent breaks in long meetings to reduce boredom and impatience. If you can’t escape the building, or the room, at least escape the chair and stretch your legs.
  • Invest in micro-resilience throughout the day, especially by drinking more water. Dehydration affects your decision making much faster than you’d think so make it a habit of filling everyone’s water glass hourly.
  • Apologize when unconstructive things come out of your mouth. If you do mess up, take it as the opportunity to build trust by admitting your mistake.
  • Enlist a trusted teammate to give you a sign if you’re getting snippy or short-tempered. Something as simple as picking up a pen can be your signal that you’re derailing.
  • Let people know how their comments landed with you to ensure you’re interpreting them correctly. Don’t start to retaliate without validating that it actually was an attack.
  • Check in with yourself frequently to identify where and why you’re getting frustrated so you can find an appropriate resolution. Misplaced frustration and aggression comes shooting out all over everywhere. If there’s something bothering you, make sure you’re aware what it is so you don’t accidentally let it squirt out somewhere else.

Bad Behavior


  • Take your frustrations out on your teammates. Instead, write them down, say them out loud, acknowledge your frustrations so they don’t get misplaced.
  • Forget that most people take pride in their work and are bruised by criticism. Instead, show empathy, recognize progress, and make suggestions that create forward momentum.
  • Exclude people or deny them your attention or eye contact; they will have to get your attention in less appropriate ways. Instead, actively seek out conversations with the people who are annoying you. Ask some good questions and see what you can learn.
  • Use humor to deflate someone. Self-deprecating humor can be useful, but sarcasm and humor used to take the heat off of you and put it somewhere else is out of bounds. Instead, call it when an issue gets uncomfortable.
  • Respond to a hurtful comment defensively, it will only escalate the conflict further. Instead, if someone hurts you, tell them that their comment was hard to hear. Give them some insight into why.
  • Retreat when someone says something unkind because the issue will fester and grow. Instead, take some time to think and then ask for a chance to share how you interpreted their comments.

I’m a big proponent of conflict in the workplace. Productive conflict is the secret to productivity, innovation, engagement, and psychological safety. None of what I’m talking about here is productive conflict. It’s the unhealthy conflict that starts innocently when one person lets slip a cheap comment and escalates when the reciprocity of tit-for-tat kicks in. Stop that cycle before it starts by finding a more constructive outlet for your frustration.

*Thanks to my friend Vince Molinaro for sharing this research with me. I love when people send me relevant research and articles, so if you have any, send them along!

Further Reading

How to change a teammate’s bad behavior

Keep calm and carry on is bad advice

4 secrets of avoiding the conflict spiral