Dealing with Difficult Employees – Part 1: The Emotional Employee

Written By Guy Greco
Partner – Virtual CEO Consulting

If you find yourself being careful when counseling certain employees because you don’t want to trigger an emotional outburst, you can join the ranks of thousands of supervisors who have had to deal with emotional employees.  Performance counseling sessions are already charged with some degree of emotion because no one enjoys being told they need to improve their performance or change their behavior.   But some employees take this human reaction to a different level.

Emotional employees generally fall into two categories:  Those who get angry and those who cry.   What is interesting is that although the demonstration of emotion is different, the root cause may be the same – for example, stress or fear can trigger either emotion.  When we are under stress, the body’s natural, physiological reaction is to “fight” or “flight”.  Fight means we challenge the source of the fear.  Flight means we run from it.  The angry person elects the fight option.  The person who cries elects the flight option.

The first thing to remember when confronted with an emotional reaction is that the employee’s mental state may have nothing to do with you or even the work environment.  Everybody comes to work with their own particular set of issues – big or small. Life can throw us some pretty big curves and, because we are human, we react.  So you may be dealing with an employee who is on edge for reasons outside of work.  But nonetheless, the performance concern must be dealt with, so you proceed.

Dealing with Anger (Loud, Aggressive Behavior)

What are the characteristics?

During a counseling session, the angry employee may have a very short fuse.  They can become extremely agitated and animated.  They will raise their voice and try to take control.  Their intent is to let you to know in very clear terms that they feel wronged and that they are upset.  Remember too that, in some circumstances, an angry employee may use aggressive behavior as a ploy to intimidate the supervisor, hoping this will shorten the counseling session or prevent meetings like this in the future.

What should you do?

  • Let the Employee Vent:  Unless the behavior is egregious and insubordinate, give the employee a moment or two to let off some steam.  You won’t get anywhere if you cut them off.   Part of their frustration may be linked to a perception that no one respects or hears them.  So listening for a while helps.  This does not mean that you become this passive punching bag.  Just hold back a bit on asserting your authority at the start of conversation.  If the employee feels they are being heard, they may begin to settle done on their own.  It is important to find the balance between listening to what the employee has to say and maintaining your authority.
  • Set the Terms for the Discussion:  After the employee blows of some steam, or when you feel they have had enough time to vent, say something like, “I want to hear what you have to say, but not in this manner. If we can talk respectfully to each other, I’ll be glad to listen.”  Say this in a low, calm tone of voice to offset the antics of the angry employee.  This helps you take back control.  Once the person begins to calm down, you can move forward with the purpose of the session.
  • Do not Show Empathy for Their Anger.  As a supervisor, you do not want to imply that you condone this behavior by being empathetic.  Tough love is required in these cases.  You can say something factual, like “I understand you’re upset.” But don’t cater to their anger.  Otherwise, it’s like pacifying a child during a temper tantrum.
  • Try not to Focus on the Anger.  If this becomes a contest of wills, you can get frustrated or even angry yourself.  You might find yourself getting pulled into the unprofessional behavior.  If you do, you lose control of the conversation.  Think more about the reasons behind the behavior.  Why are they acting this way?  What drives them? (See “What Makes Them Behave This Way” below.)
  • Establish Agreement about Something.  This is a technique used by expert negotiators.  Lay some groundwork by finding something the two of you can agree on.  For example, “Bill, I think we can agree that we both want this project to get done correctly.  Would you concur?”
  • Reschedule the Counseling Session.  There are times when the person simply won’t calm down long enough to have a useful discussion.   There are several ways to approach this.  You can tell the employee that you are going give them a few minutes to collect themselves and leave the room.  You can reschedule the conversation for later that day; or if you really think the employee needs time to cool off, you can schedule for the next day.  But do NOT let the employee off the hook.  Make it clear that you are going to address the performance issue either now or soon after.

Remember that when confronted with an angry employee, the person in control wins.  If you maintain your control, you have a much better shot at a constructive outcome.   Also, don’t forget that your other employees will be watching closely to see how you handle anger directed at you.  Even though you are having a private discussion, chances are your staff will know about it… or hear it.  Your ongoing ability to lead your staff will depend in part on their interpretation of your behavior.

What Do You Do When They Cry?

What are the characteristics?

These employees tend to be sensitive to criticism.  They can become fragile and breakdown during a performance counseling session if they think their value is being questioned.  They tend to exaggerate the harshness of the moment.  From your point of view, you’re just relating the facts.  But they see this as an admonishment for something at which they are failing.  Crying employees are similar to the angry employees.  The difference is they use tears rather than shouting to express their emotion.

Like the angry employee, the crying employee may be attempting to avoid the meeting.  Employees know that some bosses can be very uncomfortable dealing with tears.  So crying is another way to interrupt or delay the counseling session.

What should you do?

  • Treat the Tears as if They Were Words.  Imagine the tears are saying that the employee is afraid or overwhelmed.  The outburst and the tears are just an emotional manifestation of the issue.  Because the employee is not being aggressive, like the angry employee, empathy can be used effectively in these cases.   You can say something like, “I can see that you are upset.”  Or “I can understand that this is difficult for you.”  The idea is to acknowledge their feelings so that they will not feel the need to keep emphasizing them.
  • Don’t Let the Crying Affect Your Intentions.  Depending on a supervisor’s natural reaction to tears, some run the risk minimizing the problem to try to make the employee feel better.  Don’t let the tears change your position on why you asked to speak with this employee in the first place.  You can be empathetic, but remain firm.  Otherwise, the performance or behavioral problem will continue.
  • Offer Them a Tissue.  Any seasoned supervisor knows that you must have a box of tissues somewhere handy for moments like these.  Not only is it a nice gesture to offer the tissue, but doing so breaks the rhythm of the crying.  Particularly if the employee is sobbing, reaching for the tissue and whatever comes next, gives the employee a chance to collect themselves.  Also, calmly handing a tissue box to someone who is crying shows control (I’m relaxed) in addition to empathy.
  • Reschedule.  As with the angry employee, if the person is really distraught to the level where you cannot have a useful conversation, either give them a few minutes to get their emotions under control (with you out of the room) or reschedule the meeting.  But reschedule it soon – such as later that day or the next morning.  Do not play into any delay tactics

For some, crying is an automatic, physiological response (the Flight syndrome I mentioned above).  Try not to give the impression that you disapprove of the crying.  Don’t act impatient or insensitive as this will only increase the employee’s stress level and bring on more tears.

What Makes Them Behave This Way?

Remember when you were a kid and you wanted to get daddy’s attention.  You might try things like pulling on his pant legs or keep repeating “Daddy” at the speed of light?   Well, in a sense, this is what the emotional employee is doing to you.  Assuming the emotional reaction is sincere and not a delay tactic, these employees mostly just want to know that you are listening.  A little respect in these moments can go a long way.

Another idea I share when I coach supervisors is the “What makes this person tick?” approach.  We can get so wrapped up in the emotional encounter and our natural desire to gain control that we don’t consider the root causes.   I’m not suggesting that you are responsible for resolving every difficultly in their lives (see “You’re Not a Therapist” below).  But you might try asking a question like, “Mary, I’m just curious.  What makes you so angry?  I see you getting upset over many things and I’m curious to know why.”  See if you can get them to open up and not be so defensive.

I used this approach with a very difficult employee back in my days as an Operations Manager with the airlines.  She was always quoting rules and regulations to passengers with a bit of arrogance because she confused being right with being effective.  Inevitably, I would have to intervene because the passengers would get upset.  One day, I called her into my office for a chat.  She thought that I was going to counsel her and she was ready to do battle.  Instead, I told her I was worried about her because being so inflexible and angry all the time was going to make her sick.  Then I asked what triggered these behaviors and emotions.  I don’t have time to give you the full story, but suffice to say my question completely changed the demeanor of the conversation.  Things got decidedly better after that.

You’re Not a Therapist

For those of you who attended our Corps Coaching Techniques program, you may remember that I had everyone raise their hand and state clearly, “I am not a therapist”.   I did this for a very important reason.  It is not your job to cure an employee who may have some deep-rooted emotional problems.  Keep in mind that emotional outbreaks can be a sign of a more serious, personal problem.  These can include substance addictions, domestic abuse, and other severe issues.  If you feel that you are dealing with a very serious problem, be sure to get some help from your Human Resources staff and your Employee Assistance Program.

 

As usual, I welcome your comments and opinions.  I also invite you to ask any questions you may have regarding leadership in general or a specific supervisory situation or challenge you may have encountered.  I’ll do my best to respond quickly.  You can use either the “Leave a Reply” box or the “Post Comment” link below.  (Name and email address are not required.).

Thanks for your time and consideration,

Guy

If you would like more information about our Corps Coaching Techniques program, click HERE, or call me at (310) 569-4576.

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8 Responses to Dealing with Difficult Employees – Part 1: The Emotional Employee

  1. Ben O'Dell says:

    Thank you for providing this valuable information on effective interactions strategies and techniques for managing and confronting difficult employees. I attended your workshop while in USACE LCEP program a few years ago. Thank you again.

    • David Conley says:

      During the Corps Coaching Techniques, I vividly remember the counseling exercise with the poor performer. It was a real eye-opening experience. Ben O’Dell (Hi Ben!!) role-played the poor performer. Apparently, Ben had had a lot of real life experiences to draw from and is a great actor. He tore into poor Wes (role-playing the supervisor) with one hostile issue after another.

      Witnessing that hostile environment really drove home the techniques from the class and listed above. Allowing the other person to vent their frustration first and getting it all out, gets them to the point of actually being able to listen to what you have to say. It was a great exercise, and a great class!! Thanks!!

      • Guy says:

        Thanks, David. I think I remember that role play. Sometimes the workshop can have a “cathartic” benefit for the participants. I appreciate the comment and the compliment.

  2. Janice Dombi. JDombi2 Consulting LLC says:

    Hi Guy,
    Enjoyed your article. I’d like to provide a different take on the crying employee during behavioral counseling. Crying Is not trying to get attention. In American culture, the cryer is most likely going to be a woman. If it is a man, he is even more embarrassed to be crying in front of the boss. Women, especially in a male dominant profession, do not want to cry in front of the boss.She is trying to fit in with her team And sees crying as a personal weakness and curses herself for it. Understanding the societal and chemical reasons for the crying should result in and be treated as if the employee, male or female, had a coughing spell and you excuse them to get a drink of water. We raise our girls to shut up and color, raise their hand to be recognized in class, and in fact are called upon in class far less frequently than the boisterous boys. Teaching programs still warn student teachers to avoid this tendency. The tears are related to stress and not having the words to represent herself. Please never treat tears as if they were words. This compounds the woman’s failure to find her voice. Dismiss the cryer and have them return to the office under the same conditions you gave the angry employee. One other technique to avoid either the angry or crying employee is to start the performance counseling session with a compliment. There is always one nice thing you can say to an employee. Then you have his or her attention and more positive tone, you discuss the area of concern and plan for improvement, and then give him/her a positive comment at the conclusion. Ie Your a valuable member of the team, we count on you for accurate analysis. I know if you implement this plan you can be the top performer I know you are capable of…send him off on a positive note . You still need him to be a productive member of the team. This usu defuses angery and crying employees before they can launch. Thanks for the opportunity to comment.

    • Guy Greco says:

      Thanks, Janice. You make excellent points. I wasn’t inferring that tears replace words, rather that, like words, tears are another form of expression that may provide helpful information. Thanks for your perspectives. Guy

  3. I manage a staff member that will someday inherit some portion of the current owners estate. She acts like she is the owner and not a staff member. We have to handel her with kid gloves and even then she does not recieve what we say. She is able to find fault in us and twist the situation, there by remaining seperate from the request or suggrestion. We have to sit down with her and try to make some kind of headway. She is very emotional and takes everything you say as an insult. She uses extreme inflamitory speech and name calling…….. grrrrr help please…….
    The manageent team +1

  4. C. S.B.L says:

    Actually , I didn’t even think about these situations. I have a female subordinate who is a friend of mine. She is a very capable lady and I personally want to lift her up and change her life.

    Thank you for everything. I’ll apply these ideas. I hope I can create value and make her shine in next financial year.

    Thanks.

  5. I really like what you guys are up too. Such clever work and coverage!
    Keep up the awesome works guys I’ve included you guys to our
    blogroll.

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