Every manager dreads emotional outbursts. Whether it’s tears or anger, the extremes of emotion leave both the supervisor and the employee feeling embarrassed and stressed.
How do you stay calm and still get your point across? How do you prepare? Can you minimize the chances of an employee getting emotional? Can emotional conversations still be productive, not destructive?
Learning to direct and manage emotional conversations in a productive way should be one of the essential tools in your supervisor toolbox. Here are 10 tips to help the next time you face anger or tears from an employee.
1. Plan ahead. Nothing beats being prepared when it comes to uncomfortable conversations. Ask yourself: Does this person tend to be sensitive to criticism or quick to anger? Does he or she have a known trigger? Has the employee been under a great deal of stress, either at work or home? Plan for privacy, what you want to say and how to say it.
2. THINK. Build your comments to fit the acronym THINK, which stands for True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary and Kind. If you’re uncertain how to word what you want to say, reach out to another manager to run through your key points and adjust your language based on the input.
3. Start off with a positive. Especially if you think the conversation is likely to be emotional, plan to start with a positive. This sets the tone for your entire discussion and can help the employee engage with what you’re saying later, even if it’s hard to hear.
4. Focus on performance. Your feedback must remain focused on performance. Yes, the employee in question may be annoying, but that’s not the point. The point is that the annoying habit is affecting his or her teammates’ work.
5. Pay attention. As your conversation progresses, watch your employee’s body language and tone of voice, as well as your own. If the conversation is escalating, stay calm and try to find common ground. A simple comment might be, “I think we can both agree we want to meet the project’s deadline. What do you think we need to change?” If you feel that the employee isn’t taking in what you’re saying, consider taking a break.
6. Acknowledge and listen. Sometimes a little venting is all that’s needed to make an employee feel like they’ve been heard. If tears erupt, empathy is entirely appropriate to express. If your employee is angry, acknowledge their frustration, but if that anger becomes abusive, quietly make it clear that you will not condone bad language or threatening behavior.
7. De-escalate. Break the pattern, if you can, with a question. In the case of anger, keep your voice even, and say, “I’m having a tough time understanding the issue. Could you explain that a little more?” You want the employee to mirror your response, so don’t get louder or try to talk over them.
8. Don’t take it personally. Watch out for your own defensiveness, especially if the employee has said something in anger, such as blamed you for a missed deadline. Remember that frustration is usually the cause of outbursts in the workplace. Stay focused on the performance issue, and keep your tone respectful and professional.
9. Consider a re-do. Managers tend to keep plowing through a conversation, not recognizing that it has ceased to be productive. If you or your employee is overwhelmed, remember that you can take a break. In the case of tears, hand over a box of tissues and tell the person you’re going to come back in 15 minutes. Giving someone a private moment to collect themselves helps them preserve their dignity and self-respect, and helps you both come back ready to discuss performance productively.
10. Refer. As you dig into the causes of an emotional outburst, you may hear something that’s beyond your capabilities or responsibilities as a manager. For instance, an employee may reveal abuse at home or some other substantial personal problem. In these cases, express concern, but remind yourself that you’re not a minister, social worker or doctor. Your job is to manage that person’s job performance. Refer the employee to your company’s employee assistance program or bring in HR for support.
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