Temper flare-ups, passive-aggressive avoidance, and the other difficult behaviours that sometimes stem from conflict and intense emotions are a normal part of life. They don’t go away simply because people are at work.
Many managers find this uncomfortable and inconvenient. You’re busy. Who has time for drama? But if you don’t act, things can take a toxic turn, damaging people’s job satisfaction and threatening their ability to deliver good results.
That’s why wise leaders don’t look the other way when people get upset. Instead, they learn how to effectively manage others — and themselves! — in the face of disruptive behaviours.
Here are three common root causes of difficult behaviour that can point the way toward an appropriate response. Keep in mind these can operate singly or in combination, depending on the situation and the people involved.
Note: This article doesn’t cover sexual harassment, bullying, physical assault, discrimination, or other extreme behaviours with legal implications. In those situations, see HR for guidance.
Cause No. 1: Someone’s fight-or-flight response temporarily hijacked his or her brain.
It’s a simple scientific fact that when we experience strong emotions, blood rushes to the part of our brain that controls our fight-or-flight response. That also means blood rushes away from the area where we do higher-level thinking and problem-solving. In other words, the very faculties people need in order to stay calm and reasonable may be temporarily compromised. Perhaps a direct report shuts down or lashes out defensively after you give constructive criticism. Or someone leaves the room in a huff after hearing a peer’s off-the-cuff joke. Those are signs that the person is probably not in a state to think as clearly as usual.
Most people experiencing such intense emotions want one thing: to be heard and understood.
Suggestions for responding:
Model calm behaviour yourself. Emotions are contagious. If you’re freaking out too, you’re only contributing to the problem. Conversely, if you remain calm, you can help neutralize the person’s behaviour.
Check-in. A usually friendly direct report is giving terse, chilly answers in a 1-on-1. Your normally even-keeled manager slams a door. It’s tempting to ignore or withdraw from these situations. But you can build trust and potentially help the person process what’s happening by simply showing you care: “You seem upset. Would it help to talk?” If he or she says no, consider following up in a day or two.
Listen actively. Make eye contact. Keep your body language relaxed. Put your phone away. Concentrate fully on what you’re hearing and observing — not what you’re going to say or do next. If appropriate, nod and say, “Mm-hmm” to show you’re listening.
Acknowledge feelings. You don’t have to agree or commiserate to feel (and express!) empathy. And if the situation feels awkward, it may help to note that strong emotions are normal: “Guarav and Matt, I can see you’re both angry, which is understandable — this is a tough situation.” Caution: If someone regularly loses control, be careful not to empathise to the point that you reinforce the behaviour (for more on this, see Cause No. 2).
Summarise what you hear, including your best guess at core concerns. In the end, does the person want more control, acceptance by the group, meaning, and purpose in his or her work, appreciation/recognition, or something else entirely? It can be incredibly calming, satisfying, and empowering for people to hear someone else correctly identify and articulate a deep concern of theirs. Pro tip: Include some of the person’s exact words when you summarise to maximise the effect of feeling heard.
What about cases with multiple people who get into a heated conflict in front of you (or who ask you to mediate a session with everyone present)? When they hear the other side’s perspective from you instead of the person they’re angry with — especially if you’re their manager — the message may finally get through: “Guarav, if I’m hearing you correctly, you’re saying you feel like Matt’s feedback doesn’t take into account the overtime you’ve put into this project and that’s made you feel unappreciated. Did I get that right?” Make sure you summarise and check for understanding in a balanced way with each party.
Avoid premature troubleshooting. Have you ever gone to someone when you’re upset and received a response along the lines of “Why don’t you just …?” or “Have you tried …?” Even if the suggestion is excellent, you might feel like the person is shrugging off your pain. Plus, people in fight-or-flight mode may not be ready for problem-solving for several minutes — or days, depending on the situation and the people involved. Don’t rush it. It’s usually more effective to start by listening and summarising, then ask if people are ready to move on: “Would you like to talk about where we could go from here, or should we do that in a day or two after we’ve had more time to think this through?”
Cause No. 2: The behaviour has worked previously for the person.
People tend to stick with behaviours that have historically yielded good results. So, what might seem irrational to you — your manager passive-aggressively giving you the silent treatment or a direct report unleashing a torrent of expletives — could very well make perfect sense based on how others have reacted to that behaviour in the past. If it’s worked before, why wouldn’t the person try it again?
That doesn’t mean your manager or direct report is consciously manipulating you. While that is sometimes the case, many difficult behaviours are habits that people fall into without much forethought. In these situations, the key is to calmly signal that the difficult behaviour isn’t going to work on you.
Suggestions for responding:
Start with nonverbal responses. For example, if you’re in a meeting with two peers and one interrupts the other, you might avoid eye contact with the interrupter or slightly shift your body away from him or her. These tactics seem minor but can be surprisingly effective. If the behaviour continues (some people double down on difficult behavior when it doesn’t initially work), you can escalate to a more direct approach.
Call out the behaviour (“I’ve noticed that …”) without shaming or attacking the person. Difficult behaviours often work for people because the behaviours catch us off guard and we freeze (e.g., your brain starts racing and you think, Did she really just say that?) and/or we get so uncomfortable that we do whatever it takes to end the interaction. Instead, try the opposite: Show that you’re aware of and unrattled by what’s going on — and unwilling to go along with it. Strive for calm, neutral observations starting with “I’ve noticed that ...“ Focus on the behaviour, not the person: “Niko, I’ve noticed that you’ve interrupted me a few times. I understand you’re upset. Could you give me a few minutes to share my perspective?”
Point out (nicely) how their behaviour is making things worse for them. A next-level twist is to explain how the behaviour is actually thwarting — not helping — the person’s agenda: “Niko, I’ve noticed that you’ve interrupted me a few times. I won’t be able to consider the change you’re requesting, though, if I haven’t had the chance to tell you about the risks involved with it.”
Cause No. 3: The person doesn’t know any other way to handle the situation or doesn’t feel practiced enough to attempt a new approach.
It might seem obvious to you that difficult behaviour is unprofessional or counterproductive. But many people are simply unaware of or unpracticed in the other tools available to them when they are overcome by emotions or faced with a conflict. Maybe someone grew up in an environment where conflict was something to be avoided or escalated. Or maybe he or she hasn’t experienced enough professional disappointments to have developed tactics for handling them or hasn’t received as much professional training as you or others in the organisation. Regardless, you can help the person understand and apply more productive ways to address emotional situations at work.
Suggestions for responding:
Follow the second and third suggestions under Cause No. 2. Giving explicit feedback on difficult behaviour will likely be effective here, too, since the person could be unaware of how he or she is coming across. When you do this with the intent to help — and deliver your feedback with care — it can spur a behaviour change.
Help people consider alternate behaviors. It’s unrealistic to expect someone to do things differently if you don’t also suggest new approaches. For example, if two direct reports are heatedly talking over each other in a meeting, you might propose a ground rule: “How about we agree not to interrupt each other? I know you’re both concerned, but we’re not going to be able to come up with solutions if we don’t hear each other’s points.” Or if a direct report frequently comes to you to vent about another: “Have you considered speaking directly with Sunil? If you’d like, we could try roleplaying how you might give him this feedback in a way that he’d be likely to hear.”
Model effective emotional regulation and/or conflict resolution. Just because some people don’t handle emotions and conflict well doesn’t mean they’re doomed to remain “difficult.” You have the opportunity to open their eyes to more productive approaches like remaining calm, listening actively, showing empathy, and, when ready, exploring mutually advantageous next steps — by doing those things yourself! In other words, lead by example.