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,


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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22 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

    • Chris H says:

      Excellent points. My experience, also. The only thing I would caution against is opening with Praise. You set the tone as the Manager. If you’re managing for performance and this is a general review, that would seem appropriate. If you’re managing via follow up or 360, not so much. There’s a danger of being perceived as duplicitous, so opening with Praise and moving into negative evaluation and correction after building them up can result in crashing twice as hard, or worse, a confused employee who will then seek validation from peers to figure out your treatment. The idea is get in, get out. Keep it simple and to the point. Make sure they understand what’s expected and how they’re being evaluated. Be dispassionate.

  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.


  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

  6. moses says:

    This is very helpful. I wiil apply it on one of my staff with emotional outbursts. I know she can change.

  7. Wilfred says:

    Your style is very unique in comparison to other people I have read stuff from.
    I appreciate you for posting when you’ve got the opportunity, Guess I’ll just bookmark this page.

  8. Talkie says:

    Just looking for advice on counselings and found this. Absolutely agree with the above commenter; I think you have a slightly off thought about crying. I do agree that it is more than likely going to be a female crying, as society is rather strict about men crying. With that said, crying is terribly embarrassing for women and can be uncontrollable in some situations, for a very brief moment. It is the point where women have reached their maximum “passiveness” that is taught from childhood but don’t feel comfortable vetting their issues. I wouldn’t recommend anyone consider in any way that it could be a way to avoid a conversation. It is a failure and monumental embarrassment; women in the professional world (i.e., not high schoolers at McDonalds) do not purposefully cry at work.

    • Eve says:

      Agree wholeheartedly with your well articulated comments !
      These guys could learn a thing or two from you !
      Thanks for the understanding

  9. Mohamed Arfeen says:

    That is a very informative topic. Really helpful.

  10. Marianne says:

    What do you do if you have an employee who is an habitual crier, when given even the slightest amount of constructive criticism. The reaction usually starts off with a quick trigger insult from the employee upon being given direction, and then moves quickly into tears. It feels extremely manipulative and childlike.

    • Chris H says:

      In this instance that’s because it IS manipulative. The worst employees (nay people) are the ones who are incapable of listening to or processing any kind of critique or performance feedback. This is a sign of deep immaturity and is often coupled with low self-esteem and/or abusive personal relationships. None of these are things that you should attempt to fix beyond setting clear expectations for their behavior while at work. When you try to attempt to correct this behavior you will undoubtedly be opening yourself up to Pandora’s box because you are immediately thrust into resolving ALL of the underlying issues and not just the ones related to the work. You are not their friend, you are their boss, and your loyalty is to protect the health of your team/department. If the crying becomes problematic and affects the morale and performance of others, it’s time to take a trip to HR and have a chat. You should be smart enough as a manager to document time, place, circumstances, outcomes and remedies to show the pattern. If you’ve done your homework and held the line on professional conduct expectations, it’s likely that HR can intervene with more direct alternatives, including a PIP if necessary. Unless you are a professional actor there is no place for habitual criers in modern business.

  11. the says:

    Spot on with this write-up, I really believe this site needs
    a lot more attention. I’ll probably be back again to see more, thanks for the

  12. Chris H says:

    I’ve managed both situations repeatedly. Both are equally troubling. In my experience, the angry ones are harder due to the perceived threat of retribution, physical violence, theft, fraud, etc. It’s rare to see a crier delve into these other areas, but angry employees frequently validate escalations and other illegal or inappropriate behaviors that are typically much more damaging. I tend to spend more time trying to quell their riots with other staffers, rants at inappropriate times, and the fallout with other teams. Because this is an aggressive pattern, it can be tough to tackle effectively. Some people just want to be angry at everything.

    Generally the angry ones have some common traits

    Bad communicators
    Selective listening
    Selective justification
    People who focus on equality and eliminating hypocrisy
    Judgmental types
    Brilliant people with no social skills or limited coping mechanisms
    People who have been Peter Principle’ promoted and don’t have the skills or experience to perform (and use anger to hide it)

    Generalizations, I know, but may be helpful. The first step in avoiding a trap is knowing of its existence.

  13. Chris H says:

    One time I had a new boss who was a former upper level management consultant at a Big 4 consultancy brace me at an after-work hockey game we were attending and he wanted to know ‘what’s with all the anger’. I was, of course, a little surprised, not only because it wasn’t true, but because it was an obvious ploy at something else. He mistook my collaboration with our management team around some difficult change initiatives that he assigned me as being hyper-critical of our company’s immaturity and obvious weaknesses. These same conditions were adversely affecting my group, and I was getting blowback from all of my managers and even 3rd level Directs who would complain openly. By passing this summary feedback along as a means of validating why this was still a huge priority, I had inadvertently assimilated those topics as my own. It soon became very obvious that I was dealing with someone who enjoyed gaming behaviors amongst his directs, peers and even execs.

    The lesson here is be careful of getting Shrunk by people who like to play games with behavioral conditioning and manipulation. There are a LOT of these folks out there in senior and managerial roles, and sometimes they have a compulsion to orchestrate events through behavioral manipulation that end up having some really unprofessional and bad consequences, like making your make directs so angry that they want to throttle you, and your female directs crack and cry during simple meetings. One person did this to an entire division so that he could orchestrate the dismissal of all of the management staff he didn’t like, including the HR director, the VP of Sales and even the CEO.

    Kingmakers come in all shapes and sizes, and can aggrct everyone from the CEO to hourly workers.

  14. Jackie says:

    I was just told by EEO that “crying” is a “conduct” issue from a HR standpoint.

    I have depression. Is this a conduct issue?

  15. Holly says:

    I am a Cryer. Every job I’ve ever had I’ve had solving meltdowns due to stress, being condescending repeatedly, disappointing my superior and so on. For me it has been related to hormonal knee jerk emotional reactions. I also believe that I care very much how my colleagues and bosses feel about me. So if I let them down it crushes me. That said I am a very strong employee. I absolutely hate and am so embarrassed by my emotional outbursts. It’s like my rational thoughts stop and I can’t seem to control the tears. The best managers I have had hand me a tissue and allow me a moment to calm down without shaming me by getting frustrated. Being emotional has its up sides and can be a good thing when managed properly. Emotional employees care about doing good work, have empathy for others, and can relate well to others.

  16. Thank you for the insight on how to handle tears and aggression in employees as a manager I have hgreatly benefited.Hellen magoslo

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