In a work setting, we all have moments where the stress gets to us. Our work loads are too large, our resources are too thin, and our obligations can seem daunting. It’s inevitable that we’re going to freak out every once in a while.
And the ways we deal with stress varies. Some of us take deep breaths or short walks. Some of us disengage for a bit and listen to music. Some of us gorge ourselves on whatever snacks we can find in the breakroom (this is my go-to stress reliever).
Unfortunately, some folks also become loud or adversarial during times of stress. This is understandable, but it can also be a major challenge for managers.
As a manager, how can you deal with those tense moments when an employee is rude, mean or just-plain “losing it” at work?
Here are three tips that might get you through your next difficult conversation.
1) Validate the employee’s feelings, but be clear that the response is not acceptable
In management, silence is acceptance. If an employee is doing the wrong thing—coming in late, flouting policy, or being rude to you or others—you need to be clear that the behavior is not acceptable and won’t be tolerated.
Now, you don’t have to fight fire with fire. You can validate the employee’s feelings and still be clear about the behaviors. Try these phrases:
- “I know you’re under a lot of stress, but the way you’re talking to me right now is not acceptable.”
- “Your frustration is understandable, but you cannot take it out on me or anyone else in this office.”
- “I want to be clear here: Your behavior is inappropriate. Your tone and volume are unprofessional and, regardless of how stressed you are, you need to control yourself.”
2) Take a breather and stop the venting before it escalates
We all need to vent once and a while, but when that venting teeters on the edge of becoming unprofessional, it needs to stop.
If you sense that an employee is getting overly heated—maybe his language is becoming crass or his volume is increasing—it’s time to pull the plug on the conversation. Again, silence is acceptance. If you sit by and let the rhetoric escalate, you’re giving the employee a permission structure to continue.
I’m not suggesting you kick him out of your office, but a pause in the discussion is warranted. Simply acknowledge what’s happening and break off the meeting, but commit to revisiting it in the near future.
- “Ok. I can sense you’re getting upset. Let’s take a break and revisit this tomorrow.”
- “You’re upset, and I understand. But I think we should come back to this discussion later today after we’ve had a chance to cool off and collect our thoughts.”
- “Before this conversation gets out of hand, let’s take a breather. After lunch, we’ll figure out what to do next.”
3) Get to the heart of the matter
Once you’ve defused the situation, it’s important that you address the issue at the heart of the employee’s diatribe. If something (or someone) is sending an employee over the edge, you need to tackle the issue head on or it’s going to keep happening.
Spend some time probing to find out what’s causing the stress. Identify the specific things that led to the response. Then, work with the employee to identify a plan of action that can remedy the situation or mitigate the response in the future.
Not only will that approach address the current issue, but it will also help build trust with the employee, which will lead to longer-term performance benefits.
- “Did something specific happen today that caused you to react this way?”
- “You say that you’re overworked, but what specific tasks are causing you this stress?”
- “Let’s get to the bottom of this and figure out what to do next.”
An important point in closing: Everyone has bad days, but if you have an employee who continually reacts poorly, flies off the handle or treats you in an unprofessional manner, that’s a red flag you can’t ignore. It’s possible he’s not stressed at all. Perhaps, he’s just a basic jerk. In that case, it’s time for the employee to go.
Similarly, if the issue that caused the employee to lash out is intractable or unsolvable (e.g., he doesn’t like the owner, he’d rather be a professional baseball player, etc.), it’s probably time for him to “pursue other opportunities.”
Just because you manage someone doesn’t mean you have an obligation to be berated at work.
Sometimes, it’s just not the right fit. Try these tips to smooth things over, but don’t hesitate to pull the plug if it’s needed. You—and your organization—will be better for it.
Lean Out Communications is a trusted management consulting firm that empowers organizations to navigate change and grow sustainably. We use a proven collaborative process to help you engage your key stakeholders with practical, repeatable and scalable solutions, tailored to your needs, so you can meet your unique objectives.
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