Human beings are messy, emotional creatures. We all feel anxiety, anger, fear, and defensiveness at points in our lives and often, we give in to these strong emotions. It gets even messier when we have emotional outbursts in the workplace, which can happen quite often. At some point in your management career, you will have to handle an emotional employee. How you deal with an emotional outburst is crucial to maintaining a positive working environment and, if done right, can positively change the trajectory of the employee’s experience. But let’s face it, it can be overwhelming to work through an emotionally charged situation with an employee and it’s easy to make things worse. The stakes are high, and a negative interaction could cause the employee to feel unheard or uncared about, decreasing overall satisfaction and could result in the person leaving the company.
Appropriately connecting and communicating with an upset employee is essential to turn the situation around effectively. Here are some tips to help you manage highly emotional situations in the workplace:
The best thing you can do is let the person be emotional and express their feelings. Take a few deep breaths to keep yourself from getting amped up. The last thing the person needs is for you to match their intensity or for you to try to end the conversation as quickly as possible because you feel uncomfortable.
Show Concern and Listen
Make eye contact, lean forward, and listen to what the person is telling you. Avoid interjecting too soon. If the person is crying, hand them a tissue. Be personable and professional, show empathy and don’t judge or make the person feel bad about having an emotional outburst.
Get to the Facts
Most people make incorrect conclusions about why a particular situation is happening, so it’s essential to get to the facts. For example, if your employee might say, “I can’t deal with Larry anymore. He’s condescending, and he is always picking apart my work. He’s a jerk and I am ready to walk out and never come back!” Your natural inclination might to be to agree or disagree but instead, try saying, “tell me exactly what happened so I can understand the facts.” Getting back to the facts helps others step away from their conclusion and provides you with the details you need to resolve the problem eventually.
Resolve the Problem
Once you get the facts and the person is calmer, let them know you want to help resolve the issue. Discuss a path forward, making specific agreements on how each of you will handle the situation. Be sure to have a clear follow-up plan so that the issue doesn’t go unresolved.
Keep it Private
Creating a scene is never helpful to allow the person to have their emotional outburst privately. Move into a quiet office or go for a walk so that coworkers don’t witness what’s happening. Allow the person time to collect him or herself before going back to work and, if necessary, allow them to go home. Offer to collect any personal belongings if they don’t want to face coworkers in that movement.
That’s it; a simple plan to deescalate an emotional situation. If done right, both you and your employee will walk away feeling better and more optimistic about finding a resolution.
There are some other things to keep in mind when dealing with emotionally charged employees. I recommend that you DON’T…
- Let an employee go home angry. Even if you don’t resolve the issue before they leave, it’s important to acknowledge the situation and deescalate the emotional response. It’s far better to have them go home feeling heard.
- Correct minor details. When a person is upset, it’s not helpful to change unimportant details in their narrative. Does it really matter that it happened on Tuesday instead of Wednesday?
- Quote policy. No one wants to hear “well, it is company policy…” when they are angry or upset. This only will make a bad situation worse.
- Tell the employee to calm down. This almost always adds fuel to the fire as it can come off as condescending and uncaring.
Question of the episode:
The question of the episode comes via LinkedIn. “Kerry, I have an employee whom I need to give tough feedback to, but he is a single thread. If he takes it the wrong way and leaves, I am screwed, and the company is screwed. What should I do?”
Great question, and I have been there – more times than I want to admit.
First, everyone needs feedback to improve, and withholding feedback from this person keeps them from performing better and making improvements. So they deserve to hear the feedback.
Second, practice what you want to say. We use Kim Scott’s Radical Candor model. Challenge directly but do it in a way that shows you care. Write out the feedback so it’s clear, specific, helpful, and kind.
When you give feedback, don’t be afraid to be a bit vulnerable. It’s also good to offer to help. You can say, “giving you this feedback is difficult for me to do. I value the work you do and appreciate everything you bring to the table. I want to share some things I have been noticing and offer my help.”
Then give the feedback directly. Always use facts and effects. Never make it about the person or their personality.
Finally, address the single thread issue, especially if it’s a critical role. You can’t let an employee hold you hostage because they are the only person in the organization who can do what they do. Have a backup plan, engage with a contractor or consultant who can support this person’s efforts, or hire someone junior and develop them alongside this key person. Allowing a single thread can be devastating to the company if they leave and it’s our job as a leader to minimize this risk. But don’t minimize the risk by letting a single thread employee underperform or exhibit toxic behavior. What you allow is what you become.
Like this? Check out my blog on letting go when you feel you’ve been wronged.