Confronting a Coworker’s Temper Tantrums
Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
Dear Crucial Skills,
I am having a hard time dealing with a coworker/friend. She has a big heart and will do anything to help anyone. The problem is her temper. If something does not go her way or someone does something she does not agree with, she throws a temper tantrum like you have never seen before. She yells and cusses like a sailor and does not care who hears her. She is constantly on the backs of the people who work here and rips into the other managers weekly.
We all really like her and know she gets stressed easily, but we can’t handle her temper tantrums anymore. We have all tried to talk to her about this but nothing seems to sink in. She thinks it is funny and will tell you quickly that it is our fault not hers. Now people and even her friends are shying away from her, and it is getting harder and harder to work with her. How can we get her to stop throwing a fit and still keep a good working relationship and friendship?
Dear Punching Bag,
Okay, buckle your seatbelt, because I have a strong dose of feedback for you to hear. Please know that all I want to do is give you a perspective that will help you solve your problem. I don’t want to offend and especially don’t want to “blame the victim.” But one thing I need to do is challenge your “victim story.”
Here goes. Ready?
The biggest problem here is that you and your colleagues are playing the victim when you have actually been enablers. If this has been going on for a long time, if she is truly behaving as abusively as you describe, and you’ve not ratcheted up your response—then you are rewarding her behavior. If you and others are shying away, then you’ve allowed her to bully you. This has to stop if her behavior is going to stop.
You and your colleagues need to take responsibility for announcing and enforcing your own boundary. You have two options. One is to turn this over to HR or her boss immediately. If this is truly an issue of abuse and you either don’t want to or can’t handle what I suggest below, then the way to take responsibility is by asking those who should be handling this to handle it.
If, on the other hand, you think it’s something you and your colleagues can and should attempt to address first, here’s how you might prepare for and hold this crucial conversation.
First, get clear in your mind that these are not “requests” or “suggestions” for her. These are absolute and inviolable boundaries you will hold her to—with associated consequences. Here are some steps to follow:
1. Gain commitment. Meet with your friends. Help them see the role you have all been playing and commit them to holding her firmly accountable.
2. One voice. Meet with her as a group. You may not need everyone to come, but you should invite someone else to meet with her so she isn’t able to minimize the points you make or rationalize her way out. Now, going in with more than one person violates safety so invite as few colleagues as possible but as many as necessary—perhaps two or three.
3. Compassion and courage. Open by explaining the reason for the discussion. Be sure to create safety, but be firm. For example, “I know this may seem kind of dramatic, but it is very important to us. We’re sorry if this seems like we’re ganging up, but since a number of us have been affected, we needed you to hear from more voices. We need you to hear us out about a concern we want to address. If we can’t address it here, we will be meeting with the boss or with HR instead. Our preference is to work it out between us. Can we have your commitment to hear us out without interruption?”
After she agrees, create a bit of safety. “We think this problem is solvable and we want to solve it. We love you and we want to continue working with you, but not under the conditions we’ve been working under. If we can solve this one problem, we hope to work with you for many years. The problem is . . .” Now lay out facts—not generalities—share the pattern, then describe two or three instances of her behavior and the effect on your relationship.
Share natural consequences so she’ll understand why you’re motivated to address this. For example, “To you this may seem like we have thin skin, but you need to know that the three of us have found ourselves shaking in our cubicles when we’ve thought about approaching you with a concern. We feel sick and I even have a hard time sleeping when . . .” Whatever the effects are, share them. Keep it brief so she’ll have a chance to respond, but be clear on how you want to move to action.
For example, “We want your agreement that you will never yell or swear at us again when you are not getting your way. We want you to take an anger management class, and if things improve, we would like to keep this between us. But if there is another infraction in the next month, we will turn this over to the boss or HR. I know that might sound like a threat—and I’m sorry if it does—but it isn’t. It’s just us taking responsibility for our actions. I feel ashamed that we’ve allowed this to go on for so long. That’s our fault, and you’ve gotten the wrong message that we think this is okay. It’s not okay. It must stop.”
I hope I don’t come across as anything but sympathetic with your plight. It’s so easy to let things slide for so long that you get used to them and lose perspective on how things really should be. Trust me, you deserve a different work climate than the one you appear to have. Give it to yourself and your colleagues by holding this crucial conversation.
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