Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 14, Issue 2;   January 8, 2014: When Somebody Throws a Nutty

When Somebody Throws a Nutty

by

To "throw a nutty" — at work, that is — can include anything from extreme verbal over-reaction to violent physical abuse of others. When someone exhibits behavior at the milder end of this spectrum, what responses are appropriate?
A ray of light passing through and reflected from a prism

A ray of light passing through and reflected from a prism. The ray comes in from the lower left. A portion is reflected back to the upper left by the first surface of the prism. The remainder enters the prism. When it reaches the prism's other side, a portion is reflected down and out of the prism. The remainder emerges from the far side and forms the rainbow effect.

This decomposition of light into its color components is the metaphor we use to generate a "prism deflection" that respect's Bert's nutty enough to get him to consider a new topic, thus bringing an end to the nutty. Photo courtesy U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Definitions vary, but "throwing a nutty" is a phrase used, sometimes mockingly and affectionately, to describe inappropriate behavior. For example, in a small meeting, when discussion turns to Natalie's frustrating pattern of delivering as promised, but two weeks late, one of the participants, Bert, might deliver a three-minute rant, with steadily increasing voice volume and blood pressure, describing in detail Natalie's secret plot to destroy the company. Everyone else listens, stunned. When Bert realizes what he's done, he falls silent. The conversation resumes, albeit uncomfortably, as if Bert hadn't spoken at all.

Bert has thrown a nutty. Again.

Nutties make most of us uncomfortable. What options are available when someone throws a nutty? In what follows, I'll use the name Bert for the person who's throwing the nutty, and the name Ernie for the person who's trying to figure out how to respond. Here are some suggestions.

Wait it out
Waiting quietly and respectfully for the nutty to end is always a choice. Take care, though, not to communicate impatience non-verbally. For example, if Ernie looks at his watch, or starts reading mail on his "personal device," Bert might take offense.
Use prismatic deflections
Deflection to new subjects can be effective if it distracts Bert. To work well, though, the deflection must convey respect for Bert by connecting to something in Bert's nutty rant. By analogy with the way a prism decomposes light into its color components, a prismatic deflection draws Bert's attention to something new, built on one element of his rant. Ernie (or someone else) can then deal later with the performance issue of throwing nutties.
Intervene judiciously
To intervene is to interrupt Bert, usually to protect Bert from himself. In private, interventions of the form "Are you OK?" can be suitable if Bert and Ernie have Nutties can make some of us
so uncomfortable that we feel
compelled to stop them,
whatever it takes. That's what
makes nutties so contagious.
a strong relationship. But if they don't have a strong relationship, and especially if Ernie is subordinate to Bert, such direct offers of assistance might trigger resentment. A prismatic deflection can be a useful alternative.
If others are present, Ernie's direct intervention can embarrass Bert, even if Ernie and Bert have a strong relationship. Waiting it out or prismatic deflection are then Ernie's best options.
There's no obligation to join in
Nutties can make some of us so uncomfortable that we feel compelled to stop them, whatever it takes. This dynamic is what makes nutties so contagious. Harrumphs, screaming matches, hangings-up-of-phones, and stalkings-out-of-rooms can all result from nutty contagion. We aren't obliged to join in another person's nutty. If you aren't in physical danger, try something else.

Throwing nutties is a performance issue. If Bert is your subordinate, address the issue. If Bert is a peer, find a way to get through it. If Bert is your boss, you might have to find a new boss. Go to top Top  Next issue: Big Egos and Other Misconceptions  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!

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People use a variety of tactics when they're interrupted while making contributions in meetings. Some tactics work well, while others carry risks of their own. Here's Part II of a little survey of those tactics. Available here and by RSS on June 6.

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