How to Defuse Angry Employees
By Kerry Patterson
February 7, 2011
As today’s workplaces continue to be veritable petri dishes for growing cultures of stress and frustration, 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 scrambles 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, but as you stammer out one, the guy only becomes openly hostile. 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 deal with people who are on an adrenaline rush? We started by going to a location that was guaranteed to serve up angry people by the dozens: the airport. We studied passengers who were bumped from flights or missed connections. We watched gate attendants to learn how they responded to people who were having embolisms. Later we watched frontline supervisors to see how they dealt with angry employees. The following is 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 put on cloying smiles, mustered up a schoolmarm’s sense of moral superiority, and patronized the heck out of travelers.
Don’t correct minor details. The most common error was personnel correcting people right out of the chute: “Actually, you’re wrong. It happened on Thursday, not Tuesday.” The other person was already ticked, and she was being corrected! The trivial correction was often made with a sing-song voice that came off as cloying and manipulative. This, quite naturally, only escalated problems.
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 policies. If necessary, they may want you to change policies.
Don’t demand calmness. If the 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 an 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.”
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. The person was already upset and he or she was then told his or her problem was trivial compared to another. This, too, only made matters worse.
Do This. First, tend to your personal safety. Let’s be clear: if the other person is about to harm you, leave. Don’t hem and haw. Don’t try to active-listen your way out. Stand up and walk to a safer, public setting and then find your way to either security or legal. First and foremost, protect yourself.
Show your concern. If you’re not at risk for anything other than a verbal onslaught, quickly demonstrate your concern. The person wants you to be concerned; that’s why he or she is ragging on something. 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.
Share mutual purpose. Quickly let the other person know that you want to help him or her resolve the problem. Show your concern, share 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 his or her frustration. Paraphrase the person’s comments to see if you’ve understood the point. Force yourself to listen and then listen again. Allowing the other person to talk buys time for him or her to calm down.
Get to the facts. As you’re listening, find your way to the facts. The other person has become angry by the perception of a bad or selfish motive by another. Someone did something (the facts), he saw it, concluded that you or someone else was purposefully making his life miserable (not the facts), and from this conclusion became upset. Now he’s in your face and acting as if his story is true. It probably isn’t.
You enter this somewhere toward the end. The fellow is sharing his conclusions—“They are irresponsible and lazy”—and your natural tendency is 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 backtrack 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 resolve the problem.
Resolve the problem. Finally, once you get to the facts, clarify any misunderstanding 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 a mutual purpose, actively listen, get to the facts, and solve the problem together. These are truly best practices that will dissipate emotions so that you can resolve issues effectively.
Kerry Patterson is coauthor of three New York Times bestselling
books: Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
His fourth book, Change Anything, is scheduled for release in April
2011. He is the cofounder of VitalSmarts, as well as a sought-after
speaker and consultant to the Fortune 500. He and his coauthors blog
regularly at .
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