Defuse the Bomb: Making DEALS with Alphas

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I am consistently surprised by the number of executives who are aware of bullying in the workplace but don’t take action. I know it is not easy to be a leader, especially when there is dysfunctional behavior. Human Resource departments don’t have the bandwidth and may not have the expertise to help employees navigate toxic work environments and negate bullying in the workplace. While I hope this changes, for now, individuals need to learn ways to combat bullying in the workplace, protect themselves, influence strong personalities, and create alliances that help the greater good.

We all get put into difficult situations that require us to be our best when things are at their worst. When an alpha, or a bully, gets triggered, it can feel like a bomb went off. I have developed a niche in working in challenging situations, but in this case, I decided to go straight to the experts: people in military special forces who literally need to defuse bombs and influence people when they don’t want to be influenced.

Defusing a bomb is just a tad easier when it’s a bully than when it’s an actual explosive device. I had the honor of talking with Jonny Walker, an Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) team leader who has served tours in Afghanistan, Kuwait, and in the United States.

Jonny explained to me that a strong mindset and strong skill set are key to his success. He said that everyone in EOD knows that when they go out on a call, they may not return home, which makes your approach to interacting with explosive devices critical. He shared that they use a strategy called the “OODA loop” to stay safe and get the job done. OODA stands for orient, observe, decide, and act.

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BullyProof: How to Influence Alphas When the Stakes are High

Jonny told me about the history of the OODA loop. It was a strategy that a World War I ace pilot used, and this pilot never got shot down and always engaged the enemy before they had a chance to engage him. Jonny added that in EOD, you can get called out to crazy situations with a lot of uncertainty. Therefore, not only do you need to have confidence in your process, you need to make OODA a subconscious habit because it will help you take the correct actions quickly to keep yourself and others safe. The reason it’s called the OODA “loop” is that you continue to repeat this process until the job is done.

I was very interested in what Jonny does when something goes wrong and a device goes off. He didn’t initially understand my question. “Do you mean when we intentionally set something off?” he asked.

“No, I mean when you think a device isn’t going to go off, and it does,” I answered.

What I gathered was that a bomb accidentally going off was very rare because their preparation, process, and information were so calculated and accurate. Jonny eventually said, “It may seem very chaotic, but it’s very controlled.”

Make DEALS When Stakes Are High

Two things need to happen to successfully influence dominant personalities in high-stakes situations. First, you need to move from being reactive to being intentional. Second, you need to change the expected patterns of interaction and treat the bully in a way they haven’t been treated before.

To explain how to use both of these strategies, I use the acronym DEALS. DEALS stands for depersonalize, empathize, align, look for the hook, and show Subtle Strength.

Just as when you need to make a critical decision in any area of your life, following a process helps you remove the emotion and focus on the goal.

The DEALS process is not just about “dealing with” bullying in the workplace but taking intentional action to make a deal with the bully so you can positively influence them. Specifically, it helps you shift from being reactive to being intentional, returns full access to all areas of your value-based power, and makes it less likely you’ll get pulled in a direction you don’t want to go. Realizing you have the capability to respond rather than react sets you up for success to handle bullying in the workplace.


Depersonalize is equally the most challenging and the most critical step to overcome bullying in the workplace. Just as in BRACE, the first and most important step is to shift from reactive to intentional. We don’t want the bully to set the direction, nor do we want their dysfunction to become our dysfunction. To do that, depersonalize the situation – realize the alpha’s reactions have nothing to do with you. Shift your focus from the instinct to make it personal to your intention to win in the long term. This is where your ego agility comes into play.


Once you have defused your reactivity, you can help defuse the alpha’s reactivity by doing something that rarely happens. As crazy as it sounds, empathize with the alpha, even if they are acting like a bully. Try to understand why they are behaving this way. If they are making you feel the way you do, it’s likely they have very few, if any, real relationships because most people tend to avoid or attack them. You may recall the example of one executive who had been trained to bring a sword and a shield into every conversation – and to use the sword first.

Now that you know more about how our brain works when stressed, you may find it easier to empathize with the alpha. They are likely in a reactive state, just like all of us are from time to time. And if they’re in a reactive state, they are also likely to be less strategic, less focused on innovation and collaboration, and stuck in a win/lose mindset.

Neurologically, by empathizing with the alpha, what we are trying to do is to decrease their threat response so they have greater access to their best qualities and are more open to influence. In other words, we are choosing the tend-and-befriend stress response. Remember, you can be in a high-stress situation and not necessarily be reactive. As we learned from the work of Richard Boyatzis, Kelly McGonigal, and Daniel Friedland, showing empathy through positive interactions, like conversations, listening, eye contact, and laughing, can release oxytocin, a hormone that can enhance social bonds in certain situations.

Align and Agree

Next, align with them. You may recall that align is one of the five facets of BRACE found to change someone’s mind in our research. Pay them a small compliment; let them know you understand their ambitions. Agree with them to disarm them.

Look for the Hook

Then, look for the hook. In every conversation, even the toughest ones, there are opportunities and openings. You may notice certain “coins” that reveal their motivational currency, or they may directly mention something meaningful to them. You may notice a pause in the conversation, or they may say something that gives you an advantage. Look for instances where you can connect with what is important to them in order to move forward.

Show Subtle Strength

Finally, show Subtle Strength. Authentic alphas often test people by pushing them, and they expect people to either push back harder or completely avoid them. Do neither. Communicate that you aren’t a pushover by respectfully and consistently demonstrating your confidence.

Here is a reference chart that summarizes how to make DEALS with bullies in the workplace:

Step Key Points Actions
Depersonalize A bully’s behavior is not about you. Don’t take it personally as most people do. Depersonalizing the situation gives you an advantage and more options to influence. Remind yourself that the bully is behaving this way because of their unmet needs, insecurities, thinking errors, or damaged past.
Empathize No one feels for someone who is pushing others around. This is why empathy is so powerful. Change the pattern to influence the outcome. Genuinely try and understand the bully’s perspective and their story. Challenge yourself to have empathy for the bully.
Align and Agree Communicate you understand their ambitions. Agree and compliment to lower tension and increase comfort.



“I can see how important X is to you.”

“Understandably, there is a lot of passion around this topic.”

“Thank you for putting so much thought into this.”

“I agree that X is really important.”

Look for the Hook Look for the opening or opportunity. Sometimes the hook is when they reveal their primary motivator. Be patient and find the opportunity to agree and move forward. Ask yourself, What is the bully’s primary motivator? What is most important to the bully?
Show Subtle Strength Always show some type of strength that demonstrates respect and backbone. Say, “I’m with you on what you want to accomplish. You clearly have a lot of experience in this area. What if we considered a slight adjustment that may increase the chances of achieving what you want?”

Making DEALS with Alphas: Principles for Success

  • Realize it is okay to “lose” in the moment.
  • Treat the bully in a way they don’t expect.
  • Communicate with calm confidence.
  • Agree with them and pay them compliments.
  • Keep emotion low and intention high.
  • Protect yourself from getting pulled into the bully bubble and fighting with the bully on their turf using their rules.
  • Be aware of your Strength Style and how you tend to interact with alphas.


While we can never control how someone acts or reacts, we can always control our preparation and approach to influencing people, and in this way, we can work to combat bullying in the workplace. If you would like to learn more about how to deal with bullies in the workplace, please join us for the HRDQ-U webinar, BullyProof: How to Influence Alphas When the Stakes are High. The more we have a plan and are intentional, the less likely we will be to set people off and the more likely we can find ways to win.

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Dr. Rob Fazio

Dr. Rob Fazio is the Managing Partner at OnPoint Advising, specializing in global leadership and organizational success. His approach to advising combines original research on power, influence, conversations, and motivation, as well as over 20 years of consulting with elite performers.

During the Covid-19 crisis, Dr. Fazio has been advising hospitals and conducting presentations on Growth Leadership in Times of Crisis to support front-line health professionals and executive leadership. His work on Flattening the Anxiety Curve has been featured on Fox News and in The Hill.

Based on his experiences in sports psychology and executive development, he teaches clients how to remove barriers to function at optimal levels. He has worked with executive teams and coached executives throughout organizations, including the C-Suite, surgeons, and emerging leaders.

Dr.Fazio has contributed to ForbesNBC NewsNY Daily NewsHER MagazineCEO MagazinePhiladelphia Business Journal, and American Management Association. His advice on navigating turbulent times and politics has been featured in the NY Times and on CNN, Fox News Channel, MSNBC, and local networks.

His book, Simple is the New Smart (foreword by Neil Cavuto), features success strategies he has gleaned from over a decade and a half of working with athletes, executives, and people driven toward excellence.

Recently, he developed the Motivational Currency® Calculator. This self-assessment reveals what drives people, how well someone can read another person’s motivators, and how effective someone is at using the best approach to tap into someone’s motivators.

He has developed significant expertise in advising Fortune 500 organizations globally to develop, advise, and retain employees based on a future-oriented strategy, organizational values, culture, and person/position fit. He has worked internationally in a variety of industries, including finance/banking, private equity, accounting, media, pharmaceuticals, hospitals, telecommunications, chemicals, retail, sports, public utilities, and nonprofits. Rob is often asked to be a keynote speaker or facilitator at executive offsites.

Dr. Fazio has served as a performance excellence consultant to a variety of organizations and athletic teams. He participated in the development and facilitation of the life-skills portion of the NFL’s Coaching Academy and the PGA’s 1st Tee programs.

He is the founder and President of a September 11th-inspired nonprofit organization, Hold The Door For Others. The organization’s mission is to empower people to grow through any type of loss and adversity and achieve their dreams,

Prior to starting OnPoint Advising, he worked at the Leadership Research Institute and Hay Group. Rob completed his BA in psychology at The Pennsylvania State University. He earned an M.Ed. in athletic counseling from Springfield College and an MS in counseling psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University.

Dr. Fazio earned his Ph.D. in counseling psychology, with a subspecialty in consulting, and completed his clinical rotation at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Fazio is a Licensed Psychologist in the state of Pennsylvania. He lives just outside Philadelphia in Haddonfield, NJ, with his wife Keli, daughters Reese and Rae, and their adopted Great Dane, Cannoli.

Connect with Rob on LinkedIn.

Recommended Webinar
BullyProof: How to Influence Alphas When the Stakes are High

In this session, bestselling author, Rob Fazio, will offer practical frameworks and strategies to adapt and influence authentic alphas in the workplace.

BullyProof: How to Influence Alphas When the Stakes are High Webinar
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