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All Better Now? Maybe Not

By: Dr. Jim Goldstein

All Better Now? Maybe NotNot too long ago, I was waiting in the outer office for a client of mine to finish a phone call. He was having a very heated dispute with a vendor and the argument, with a heavy dose of profanity, was easily heard by everyone in the small office.

I noticed that his assistant got up and went over to her co-worker and started talking. I asked the two of them what was going on and they said, “He is really upset this morning. I don’t want to be in there when he comes out.” The call ended with the telephone receiver being slammed down noisily.

When my client did come out a few minutes later, he acted as if nothing had happened. He asked his assistant to get him a particular file and I noticed that her demeanor was serious and wary.

In working with CEO’s over the years, I have seen a number of them take on frustration after frustration until at some point, they snap under the pressure. When they snap, it shows up in any number of ways. Sometimes, they react harshly to a mistake made by a subordinate or they take an annoyed, sarcastic tone with people on the management team. Or, as in this case, they blow up at someone else who is not in the office. Unfortunately, everyone can hear and feel the tension.

CEO’s, having let off steam and released the tension they were feeling, may later emerge from their office in a better mood. They may even make friendly small talk with the very people they berated. It’s as if they are saying, “Everything’s okay now. I’m in a better place and we can move on.”

Except, the people on the other end of the outburst often can’t move on. They are still affected by the yelling they heard or the stinging words or the tone of voice that was used. It’s a mistake to assume that just because you are “over it” everyone else is fine now, too. For them, the tension still exists. In the above example, a lot of time was wasted that morning talking about the boss’ mood.

The loss of emotional control is unfortunately something that happens more often than we’d like. I don’t think it can be avoided entirely. In an office situation, however, if the occasional outburst is not managed properly, it can have devastating effects on morale, productivity and creativity. When an office feels unpredictable, tense and unsafe, people begin to disengage. They lose respect for their boss and are more apt to make careless errors.

So how do you restore morale and get people to re-engage after an unfortunate outburst? You have what is called a meta-conversation. Instead of talking about the specifics of any particular incident, you acknowledge what happened on the relationship level (the meta level) and address how people may have felt. Where appropriate, you apologize and recommit to expressing yourself more responsibly.

“Listen, I apologize for the tone of voice I used with you before. I was upset by some bad news I just got and I think I took it out on you. That wasn’t right. I’m sorry. I’ll work on not doing that in the future.”

Even though the previous conversation will take less than 30 seconds, it will make a huge difference. People will forgive you and appreciate you for admitting that you are human and for not making light of something that was upsetting for them. It takes a very strong person to acknowledge when they were out of line and to recommit to a better working relationship.

Your willingness to repair the relationship will make all the difference in their ability to re-engage and be more focused on work. It will also increase their respect for and identification with you, your company and its values going forward.

I’d love to hear your comments on the effects of acknowledged and unacknowledged outbursts on morale, respect and productivity in the workplace.


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