How to handle anger in the workplace

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Over the course of a HR professional’s career there will be times when they are confronted by an angry employee, but what’s the best way to respond in those situations?

Industrial-organisational psychologist Wanda Douglas told HRM Online there are some basic principles to take note of when confronted with distressed or aggressive employees.  She suggests HR managers remember that while angry employees may appear to want a specific issue addressed, there is often something else that they perceive as equally or more important. Most importantly 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 to the possible detriment of your reputation,” she said. “In addition, staff will closely observe how you handle any aggression or distress that is directed at you, and even if you have a “private” discussion with an angry employee, staff may soon know about it.  Your ability to facilitate positive change will depend on your behaviour, and the interpretation of your behaviour.”
Douglas recommends taking the following steps to effectively manage such confrontations:
 
De-personalise the situation.  Realise that, in all likelihood, the employee is not angry at you personally.  They may be angry because they feel they are wronged, that their organisational or work expectations aren’t met, or because of the personal impact of a work-related message on their work/home situation.  Focus on the facts and maintain appropriate boundaries to avoid getting swept up in the emotion of the event.
 
Maintain your composure, and speak in a calm tone of voice. It can be tempting when dealing with an angry employee to raise your tone of voice to match his or hers.  This will only escalate the situation. Instead speak softly; the irate individual will need to quiet down in order to hear the answer to their demands.  If necessary, allow a few minutes for them to regain their composure, and if this isn’t possible, suggest another time for the meeting.
 
Empathise. Even if you think the employee’s responses are over-the-top, chances are that you too have been upset or angry at times.  Allow them to talk through their emotional response, use active listening skills to build and maintain rapport, and gently use open-ended questions to gauge their perceptions of the situation at hand.  At this point in time, your role is not to prove the employee wrong (even if they are) – this is only likely to increase the emotional intensity of the meeting.  If the employee's perceptions do not match your perceptions, express your perspective in a way that aims to put you and the employee on the same side such as identifying some common ground, something that the two of you will agree on – for example. "Michael, this is a tough situation with some far-reaching implications for your role – I think we agree that it needs to be managed with as much transparency as possible.  Is that accurate?"  Remember, you may not be able to actively confront the issues or problem-solve with the employee at this initial meeting.
 
Take a break.  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 fully consider the implications of the bad news, and your discussion of that news.
 
Get help. When all else fails, there’s no shame in handing off a difficult employee to someone else – either another person within the organisation (another HR manager, or someone who is viewed positively by the individual) or an external agent (for example, EAP, or an organisational psychologist).  Introducing a neutral face into a conflict can sometimes have a calming or moderating effect; conversely, it can also mean that the ‘heat’ is directed and managed elsewhere.
  • kb on 2014-01-27 2:52:25 PM

    Getting help and taking a break (giving you an opportunity to get help as well as rethinking everything you've heard and regrouping) can be very important. Coming back for another discussion after time for a cool down may be a very good strategy, but I think the suggestion of handing the angry person off to someone else is fraught with risk--big companies may have an EAP or an organizational psychologist but that simply isn't a reality for most of us. If the manager can't deal with a problem and appears to be shuffling it off to someone else because they don't know what to do they will appear weak and lose credibility. Not a good outcome at all. Better to work through it with a good faith determination to be fair, be willing to listen, and find a solution is better. I agree that in many cases the angry person most wants to be heard. Their anger will diffuse when it is clear that someone with authority will listen and respond even if they don't end up getting what they want.

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