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Crucial Confrontations: How to Deal with Angry Employees

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As today's workplace continues to serve as a veritable petri dish for growing a culture of stress and frustration, the likelihood that one or more of your employees will become angry is on the rise. Of course, in today's ''enlightened'' organizations, it's generally considered uncouth to blow a gasket at work, so today's version of workplace anger often comes in the form of repressed rage masked as raging sarcasm or possibly a hostile glance or maybe the ever-favorite thinly veiled threat.

For example, an employee hustles into your office. He's trying to act calm, but it doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that you're staring into the face of strong emotions. The pulsating vein in the angry fellow's forehead is a dead giveaway. It turns out he's upset at a coworker, but he's directing his hostility toward you. You madly search for an appropriate response to the impending threat. Unfortunately, as you stammer out a reply, the guy is only becoming more openly hostile, and the conversation is headed for the dumper. So what's an HR professional to do?

To answer this question, we set out to identify real-life "best practices" for dealing with strong emotions. How do people who are interpersonally gifted deal with those who have fallen under the influence of adrenaline? We started by going to a location that was guaranteed to serve up angry people by the dozen—the airport. There, we studied passengers who had been bumped from flights or missed connections. Actually, we watched the gate attendants to learn how they responded to people who were about to have an embolism. Later, we watched front-line supervisors in order to discover how they dealt with angry employees. Here's what we learned.

Don't Do This:

Despite the fact that many of the people we studied had been instructed on how to deal with anger, rarely did they do anything that actually made matters better. The good news was that the trained professionals knew not to get angry in return (the natural response to an attack). The bad news was that the responses they came up with were often just as problematic. They would put on a cloying smile, muster up a schoolmarm's sense of moral superiority, and then patronize the heck out of the other person. Here are some of the more common mistakes:

1. Don't correct minor details. The most common error was correcting the other person right out of the chute. "Actually, you're wrong. It happened Thursday, not Tuesday." The other person is ticked, and now she's being corrected! The trivial correction was often made in a sing-song voice that came off as cloying and manipulative. This, quite naturally, only escalated the problem.

2. Don't quote policy. Telling others that they won't be getting what they want because "it's against policy" is another bad opening line. People don't care about policies. They want what they want despite stupid policies. If necessary, they want you to change policies.

3. Don't demand calm. If the other person was particularly hostile, the most common reaction was to tell him or her to calm down. For example, a group of leaders we studied almost always gave the angry person a dollar and asked him or her to go get a cup of coffee and calm down. This, as you might imagine, only poured fuel on the flames. It's akin to saying "You're acting immature and need to grow up, so go away, and don't return until you can act like an adult."

4. Don't one-up. This technique came as a surprise. An individual would complain about something, and the other person would share an even worse example—one-upping the angry individual. A person is upset, and now he is being told that his problems are rather trivial compared to yours. This, too, only made matters worse.

Do This.

1. Tend first to your personal safety. Let's be clear; if the other person is about to harm you, exit. Don't hem and haw. Don't try to active-listen your way to freedom. Stand up and walk to a safer public setting, and then find your way to either security or legal. First and foremost, protect your safety.

2. Show your concern. If you're not at risk for something other than a verbal onslaught, quickly demonstrate your concern. The person wants you to be concerned; that's why she is currently ragging on you. Don't maintain a clinical stance in an effort to control your emotions. Acting calm and collected suggests that you don't care. Show that you care.

3. Share mutual purpose. Quickly let the other person know that you want to help him resolve the problem. Show your concern, share your mutual purpose, and then listen. Resist your temptation to talk too early. Before you profess, correct, or clarify anything, let the other person explain the source of her frustration. Paraphrase to see if you've understood the point. Force yourself to listen and then listen again. Allowing the other person to talk helps buy time for him or her to calm down.

4. Get to the facts. As you're listening, find your way to the facts. The other person has become angry by telling himself a story about a bad or selfish motive of another. Someone did something (the facts), he saw it, he concluded that you or someone else was purposefully making his life miserable (not the facts), and as a result of this conclusion, he became upset. Now he's in your face and acting as if his story is true. It probably isn't.

You enter this mini-play somewhere toward the end. The fellow is sharing his conclusions—"They are irresponsible and lazy"—and your natural tendency will be to disagree. Instead, ask, "Exactly what did I (or someone else or the company) do that led you to conclude that I'm irresponsible?" Help the other person walk back his path to anger and arrive at the original behavior—what you or someone else did, not what the angry person concluded or how he feels. Getting back to the facts helps others step away from their conclusions and provides you the details you need to eventually resolve their problems.

5. Resolve the problem. Finally, once you get to the facts, clarify any misunderstandings and jointly resolve the problem. If you've avoided becoming angry or taking on a patronizing stance, and if you first listened with concern, you'll now be problem solving with a person who isn't particularly emotional.

So there you have it. Don't become angry or patronize. Instead, show your concern, find your mutual purpose, actively listen, get to the facts, and solve the problem together. These are truly best practices that are geared toward helping others dissipate their emotions rather than take them out on you. And that's a good thing.

About the Author:

Kerry Patterson coauthored the New York Times bestsellers Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High and Crucial Confrontations: Tools for Resolving Broken Promises, Violated Expectations, and Bad Behavior, and he is an acclaimed keynote speaker and consultant. He is also the co-founder of VitalSmarts, an innovator in corporate training and organizational performance, and is a member of the board of directors.

Kerry is a prolific writer who has coauthored numerous articles and training programs on interpersonal skills, culture change, teamwork, and dialogue. His award-winning, video-based training initiatives on problem solving, conflict resolution, teamwork, and performance management have been used successfully by hundreds of Fortune 500 companies. Kerry began his research into the challenges of developing and maintaining healthy organizations while doing his doctoral work at Stanford University. He taught at Brigham Young University's Marriott School of Management and then co-founded Interact Performance Systems, where he worked for 10 years as vice president of research and development.

While at VitalSmarts, Kerry coauthored Crucial Conversations and Crucial Confrontations. His latest book, Influencer: The Power to Change Anything, will be in bookstores in the fall of 2007. Kerry is a recipient of the Mentor of the Year Award and the William G. Dyer Distinguished Alumni Award from the BYU Marriott School of Management.
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