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Managing emotional employees: 10 tips for keeping your cool


Every leader dreads managing emotional employees. Whether it’s tears, anger or screaming fits, the extremes of emotion leave both the supervisor and the employee – and anyone within earshot of the outburst — feeling embarrassed and stressed.

How do you stay calm and get your point across when confronted by emotional employees? How do you prepare for this scenario? Learning to direct and manage emotional conversations in a productive way should be one of the essential tools in your supervisor toolbox.

In the moment that an emotional outburst occurs, however, your top priority is de-escalating a volatile situation. This isn’t the time to try to sit down with the employee for a productive conversation about consequences and accountability.

Here are 10 tips for managing emotional employees:

1. De-escalate the situation

All of us need time to back down and regain a sense of calm when we “explode.” Ask the emotionally-charged employee if they’d like to move to a quiet, private space within the office to recover. If that’s not an option, you may want to send the employee home for the remainder of the day.

And remember that you need to refrain from letting your own emotions cause you to make unfortunate snap decisions. Don’t fire an employee in the heat of the moment; you both need time to recover from the incident.

Do you expect the employee to return to work later in the day or tomorrow? Were things so heated you’re not sure when or if to expect the employee to return? Write up an account of the incident, and contact HR for guidance on the best way to handle the situation.

If your employee calms quickly and does want to talk, keep your voice even. Try saying, “I’m having a tough time understanding the issue. Could you explain that a little more?” You want the employee to mirror your calm response; don’t get louder or try to talk over them.

2. Don’t take it personally

Watch out for your own defensiveness, especially if the employee said something in anger, like blaming you as the cause of the blowup or for a missed deadline.

Remember that frustration is usually the cause of outbursts in the workplace. Stay focused on performance issues – is this situation likely to occur again – and keep your tone respectful and professional.

Once everyone has calmed down, you can prepare to have a conversation with the emotional employee to discuss performance, consequences, standards and accountability.

If the thought of confronting the issue again sends your blood pressure soaring, you’re probably not alone. Your employee is embarrassed, maybe humiliated, and they’re probably not looking forward to the conversation, either. It’s up to you to maintain a constructive conversation that focuses on performance, not on personality or hearsay.

These tips will help you achieve the outcome you desire.

3. Plan ahead

Nothing beats being prepared when it comes to managing emotional employees. Ask yourself if this person tends to be sensitive to criticism or quick to anger. Does the employee have a known trigger? Has he or she been under a great deal of stress, either at work or home?

Think in advance about what you want to say and how to say. Plan for privacy. Do not have the conversation within earshot of other employees.

4. Start with a positive

Especially if you think the conversation can take a turn to the emotional, start it 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.

Tell your employee what he or she does right. Tell them what you appreciate about their contributions to projects, coworkers or team dynamics. In other words, let your employee know up front why they are a valued member of the team and that you appreciate their contributions.

5. T.H.I.N.K.

Build your comments to fit the acronym THINK, which stands for True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary and Kind. Do your words fit into these parameters? Keep in mind that the goal of this conversation is not to berate or further embarrass your employee. Be positive and affirming, and ask yourself if your words, as well as your body language, are accomplishing that goal.

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.

6. 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 or behavior is affecting their work and that of their teammates.

Instead of berating an employee for the way he or she responded to a situation, explain how the response escalated the situation or affected the work. Offer an alternative response and why it would produce a more positive outcome for all parties.

If these skills as a manager don’t come naturally to you, you’re not alone. No one is an immediate expert at learning to manage emotional employees. It takes practice, but doing so is well worth your time.

Are there other managers in your organization that you can look to as a mentor and learn from them? Find out if training or online courses are offered through your company that can help you learn these skills. If all else fails, Google the topic to find articles and courses to help you improve your skills.

Don’t let your anticipation of the conversation blow things out of proportion by imagining worst-case scenarios. Try to stay positive, and rely on these tips to help you stay on track when you’re in the middle of the discussion.

7. 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 takes a turn toward the abusive, quietly make it clear that you will not condone bad language or threatening behavior.

8. 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.

Managers sometimes have the tendency to keep plowing through a conversation, not recognizing that it has ceased to be productive. Taking a few minutes to regroup can be beneficial to both you and your employee. These tips can help you both refocus on the point of the conversation – moving forward in a productive manner.

9. Consider a re-do

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.

Be sensitive to clues from your employee. In the case of tears, hand over a box of tissues, and tell your employee that you’ll leave the room and return in 15 minutes. Use that time to reflect on the conversation and compose yourself – not gather over the top of a cube to chat with other employees.

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 another substantial personal problem.

If this happens, express concern, but remind yourself that you’re not a minister, social worker or doctor, and your job is not to fix the situation. Your job is to manage that person’s job performance. Refer the employee to your company’s employee assistance program, or bring HR in for support.

If you see any red flags that make you think the situation could turn into an incidence of workplace violence, your first priority should be the safety of your employees and your facilities.

Take an early and proactive approach, in conjunction with HR, to create a safety plan that can help protect employees and minimize your company’s risk. Train managers and staff on warning signs and the process for reporting suspicious behavior. Do this before you’re in the position of having to manage highly emotional employees.

Managing emotional employees — in summary

Managing emotional employees isn’t enjoyable, and it will probably never be a favorite function of your job. It is crucial, however, to maintaining a positive work environment where all employees feel valued for their contributions and are motivated and engaged.

For more help to create the work environment you want, download our free e-book, How to develop a top-notch workforce that will accelerate your business.