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.
26 thoughts on “Confronting a Coworker's Temper Tantrums”
Your advice makes a lot of sense to me! I do wonder if it is realistic for someone who has apparently had temper tantrums for years to not have any for a whole month. Might she then see the demand as impossible and then not even try? Or the colleagues will give her another (and another) chance? Or is one month simply the starting point of the negotiations with her?
I was impressed by the answers you provided regarding the anger issue particularly the enabler portion. The anger managment classes and everything else mentioned are fine however, there is one other scenario that could be affecting this coworker and that is an anxiety issue. I know that we are not MDs but it is another possibility one that I am quite familiar with since I was once that coworker myself.
Most self help solutions rely on interacting with “normal” people. There are plenty of cases, I have found, where the issue is not motivation but rather capability. For example, there are people who will have a physical reaction to flying. That is not something I can motivate them out of. It is difficult to differentiate between an “abnormal” reaction and a learned behavior. We automatically assume that people can control their behavior but there are cases where they cannot. I would be interested in how to recognize and deal with those cases.
I would always ask myself “Why would a sane, rationale human being act that way?” Are there other stresses in their life that would create the circumstances where they would be more sensitive to stress or disagreement in the office. In no way would this justify the behavior you described, but it might give a reason. I agree that you still need to bring it up to her, especially immediately after or during her next display.
I could really relate to this one! In fact, I can reflect on almost each job I have had over decades that have had at least one form or another of this individual. In one case, (I did not know about crucial conversations), I had worked for the employer for four years. The bully came to work and wormed her way up the food chain, making herself invaluable and chewing away at my job duties to make her look like a superwoman. Because my position was easier to replace than hers, I got the heave-ho for the first time in my career. The person was a habitual liar and difficult to have a sane conversation with. The employer and manager swallowed the show hook, line and sinker.
Why would any employee think this behavior is appropriate in any work place? I loved your suggestions and tact. I work with a wonderful, communicative group now after a few road bumps on the team. Until you swim out of the rapids, you don’t have a clue the relief you will feel!
It is possible that this is NOT a “sane, rational” human being. Anxiety disorder, and depression are also often expressed as irrational, excessive anger, among other mental health issues.
Besides anger management, the possibility that psychological treatment is needed should also be explored. There, the person can explore whether bad parenting (where s/he was allowed to act like a three-year-old all her life), untreated mental illness, bad parental modeling, growing up in a dysfunctional family, or whatever other problems can be identified and addressed. Medication may well be needed as well.
This behavior also has to be affecting the coworker’s personal relationships, which could be pointed out as well. Asking how many relationships have been destroyed could increase motivation to address the surface and underlying problems.
From the description of the behavior, I suspect that a single anger management class will be totally insufficient for this person.
That said, this behavior is absolutely NOT acceptable in the workplace. This individual may need a medical leave of absence to get it under control; as in, totally eliminated.
I am confounded by my temper tantrums. I am on medication for this. If I can anticipate a problem situation I will take Ativan. It has become difficult to hold a contract position for more than 3 months or a permanent position more than a year.
My father just called to tell me my sister is in the psychiatric ward of a local hospital. She has more severe physical and mental problems than I. Several persons have committed suicide or had mental problems along my mother’s family tree.
Whether my coworkers were enablers in the past, I feel I behaved worse earlier in my career and yet had longer stints of employment and contract work. I suspect there is a matter of ageism here. What you may tolerate in a young worker is not what you may expect of an older worker.
More importantly to me, your solution is one of dictating a solution to the problem child, and just how often does that work? What is your solution for someone with a more severe brain disorder?
“This individual may need a medical leave of absence to get it under control; as in, totally eliminated.”
Behaviors in the workplace are cultural and do not have absolutes. This is why I consider ‘diversity management’ an oxymoron, because it only ends up being our way or the highway. As for total elimination of behaviors, the last I heard psychologists and psychiatrists only claim a success rate of 50% (I don’t know if recidivism is included in that number) and the rate of suicide in those occupations is among the highest of all occupations.
Do stand up for yourself. Shout back if you must. Whatever happened to defusing a situation with a joke or by picking up a (preferably clean) eraser to throw? I am tired of being called unprofessional because my demeanor does not reach an arbitrary standard.
Thank you for your excellent response to this situation. it is improtant that we do not allow this behavior because we “like” the person or they are a good nurse. It is unprofessional and unsafe, and it creates a stressful atmosphere that allows everyone to act this way.
I reported to a supervisor who behaved in ways very similar to what is described in the original post. I used Crucial Conversations to address the situation and instead of getting better, the dynamic got worse.
Whatever the outcome, it is important that you not let yourself be perceived as either the victim or the villain. If you’re in a workplace environment that allows that behavior, get out.
Really, now. Did I give you permission to use my nom de guerre?
Great answer. My first thought was “boundary issue”, but I didn’t think about the victim angle.
Setting limits really works. I once had an employee who had a couple of tantrums in client meetings. I took him aside and told him it was not acceptable and would not be tolerated and that he should leave the room if he felt that upset. At first he denied having done it, but I just stuck with him not doing it again. He never did, and there did not seem to be any residual resentment.
Thanks for all the wisdom you bring us.
Re: the person who has tantrums and left a comment. My brother used to have a raging temper, which disappeared once he started taking synthetic tyhroid hormone to correct an imbalance. It’s an inexpensive test and might be worth a try.
Great point, Curious. I’m with you that negotiating realistic commitments is important. It’s also important that both parties feel they are acceptable. Saying “you can continue to abuse me a while longer” doesn’t make sense – nor does “change now or else.”
I agree! Sometimes you begin to think dysfunction is normal. I’m glad you’ve both found and created a healthier place.
A number of you have commented on the importance of discerning if this is an ability issue – meaning some physiological concern. I heartily agree – and would encourage you to maintain your emotional boundaries irrespective of the diagnosis.
Thank you but my thyroid is fine. Conversely, I suffer mildly from Crohn’s disease, which may have influenced my earlier life. I didn’t mean to imply that ativan is my sole psychopharmaceutical, btw.
I love your answers. I agree with some other respondents that the individual with the tantrums might have other problems such as ADD/ADHD, bipolar disorder, impulse control issues, codependency issues, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and/or borderline personality symptoms. She needs to be evaluated by a counselor or therapist who specializes in mood and personality disorders or have a psychological evaluation. All are issues that need therapy (I suggest Schema Therapy, DBT, CBT, or REBT) and possibly medication either temporarily or long-term.
Well, we try. However, what would “A Passion for Excellence” have been without the passion. It is sometimes our passions to excel that light the conflagration. Exasperation with our own failures precedes our exasperation with others.
Your strategy seems very wise, Joseph, although I’m concerned that the language about “i’m ashamed… we’ve let this go on so long, that’s our fault” is too strong. A person with this much of a social deficit is only going to hear that someone else deserves blame/shame for their own behavior. I’d suggest: “We’ve let this go on for a long time without saying anything and it’s time to speak up. We want a better relationship with you than the one we’ve had. We respect your ability and the contributions you make (insert specifics here if possible), and we want to be a strong team. That can’t happen until we know we can count on you not to lose your temper.”
I was surprised by the ‘enabler’ comment but after reading your entire response I can see that angle. Temper tantrums are a childish behavior and I might have responded to a co-worker such as this by saying something like, “While I respect your knowledge and ability, we need to function as a team. This is not a team environment right now. When you are ready to discuss this calmly, come see me/us.” And then I would walk away. Is that too harsh or unproductive?
And yet many behaviorists will tell you “form, storm, and norm” is a recurring theme for any team. Teams change in composition. Opinions change. Objectives change. Although “storming” needs to be managed to get to the norm, putting the responsibility on one team member minimizes the roles other team members play. Those roles may reflect “button pushing” or instigating behaviors, negative actions with consequences, or neglected positive actions with rewards.
I have a very similar experience where I work,yet my supervisor has figured out when she can have a temper tantrum. She only does it to subordinates and then goes crying to management and peers after SHE blows up. She has type 1 diabetes and I used to excuse her behavior as side affect but she definitely never blows up at higher management,only underlings. She acts very cordial to peers and upper management,including HR. She has been with this major international retailer for close to 20 years,so she knows how to get away with it. even though our company has an “Open Door” policy, it really does not exist,there is management peers and underlings who have to put up with overbearing supervisors or leave. I have taken a vow not to let her temper tantrums ruin my day,but I don’t excuse them as purely a medical side affect anymore.
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