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Dealing with Angry Employees

Anger is a force that can move an organisation forward to improve, or, it can be a force that destroys the organisation's ability to fulfil its purpose on an everyday level. Managers play a critical role in determining which of these results will come about. The way the manager deals with conflict and anger will set the climate for employees.

There are a number of different anger/conflict situations that managers will face at one time or another. Each of these situations is slightly different, and may require different sets of skills.

. one employee angry or in conflict with another
. employee angry or in conflict with manager (you)
. one employee angry at someone in another organisation
. two factions that habitually square off

We are going to look at employee angry that is directed towards you as a manager.

The Anger Iceberg

You should be aware that the anger you see is much easier to deal with than the anger that goes unexpressed by employees. You should also know that the large proportion of employee anger is not expressed directly to the "boss". It is this anger that is destructive to your organisation since it will surface covertly through activities such as back-stabbing, non-co-operation, rumour spreading, and poor performance.

One important management/leadership task is to be alert to cues that indicate that there is anger sitting below the surface, unexpressed. While it may be frustrating to bear the responsibility of identifying and dealing with the "iceberg under the surface", it is an important part of building a positive climate where conflict can be resolved. If you wait for an employee to broach the subject, when it is clear there is a problem, you may be sacrificing a great deal.

We are going to focus on how employee anger that is out in the open can be dealt with so that there is a potential for increasing the level of respect and harmony, and by extension, productivity.

Basic principles

1. Conflict/Angry situations become negative and destructive when they are not dealt with promptly and effectively. When the situations are dealt with properly, there is a tendency for a team to get stronger and better.

2. While angry employees may appear to want a specific issue addressed, they are looking for something else that they see as equally or more important. They want to be heard. If you don't provide a means for them to be heard, they will find other more subversive ways to be heard (and you won't like it much).

3. Staff will watch very closely to see how you handle anger directed at you. Even if you have a private discussion with an angry employee, staff will know about it. Your ability to lead will depend on your behaviour, and the interpretation of your behaviour.

4. Most people react to anger directed at them with a fight or flight reaction. That is there is a gut reaction which, unchecked, results in "firing back" with an aggressive manner, defending oneself, OR, avoidance. Only in rare occasions will these gut reactions result in dealing with anger effectively.

Tips & techniques for dealing with overt angry behaviour

1. When an employee expresses anger, deal with it as soon as possible. That doesn't mean in two weeks! By showing a desire to make time to discuss the situation, you are showing that you are concerned, and value the employee and his or her perceptions and feelings. Many performance problems reach crisis proportions as a result of delay in dealing with anger.

2. Certain situations require privacy for discussion since some people will be unwilling to air their feelings at a public staff meeting. However, if anger is expressed in a staff meeting, you can develop a positive climate in the organisation by dealing effectively with it in public. One technique is to ask the angry employee whether they would like to discuss it now, or prefer to talk about it privately. Let them call the shot.

3. Always allow the employee to talk. Don't interrupt. If they are hesitant to talk, encourage them by using a concerned, non-defensive tone and manner, and gently use questions. For example:

"You seem a bit upset. I would like to help even if you are angry at me. What's up?"

4. If an employee refuses to talk about what's bothering them, consider adjourning by saying:

"I can understand that you are hesitant to talk about this, but we would probably both be better off if we got it out in the open. Let's leave it for a few days and come back to it"

Then follow up on the conversation.

5. Respond to the employee's feelings first, not the issue underlying the feelings. Use empathy first by saying something like:

"It sounds like you are pretty annoyed with me. I would like to hear your opinion".

6. Before stating "your side" or your perception of the situation, make sure you have heard what the person said. Use active listening.

"George, if I understand you correctly, you are angry because you feel that I have not given you very challenging assignments, and you feel that I don't have any confidence in your abilities. Is that right?

7. If the employee's perceptions do not match your perceptions express your perceptions in a way that tries to put you and the employee on the same side. Your job is not to prove the employee wrong (even if they are). Trying to prove the employee is
incorrect is likely to increase the anger level even if you are right.

"George, I am sorry you feel that way. Let me explain what I think has happened so you can understand my thinking. Then we can work this out together."

8. A technique used by expert negotiators is to establish agreement about something. Before getting into the issues themselves, lay the groundwork by finding something the two of you agree on. Again, the point here is to convey the message that you are on the same side.

For example:

"George, I think we agree that we don't want this issue to continue to interfere with our enjoyment of our work. Is that accurate?"

9. At the end of a discussion of this sort, check with the employee to see how they are feeling. The general pattern is:

a) Deal with feelings first
b) Move to issues and problem-solving
c) Go back to feelings (check it out)

Ask the employee if they are satisfied with the situation, or simply ask "Do you feel a bit better?" You may not always get a completely honest response, so be alert to tone of voice and non- verbal cues.

If it appears that the employee is still upset or angry, you may want to let it pass for the moment. Allow the person to think about the situation away from you, THEN follow-up in a day or two. This is important because someone who is angry initially may
"lose face" by letting the anger go immediately. Or, the employee might just need time to think about your discussion.


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