• Tue, Jan 17 2012

Co-Worker Conundrum: How To Keep Calm In The Face Of Irrational Office Anger

During one of my first sales meetings with my current team, an argument broke out between the owner of the company and our most senior salesperson. This man, we’ll call him John*, had worked for the owner’s grandfather four decades ago. My company is the only employer John has ever known. He started here at 19 years old and he retired from here just last year. Talk about company loyalty. But that doesn’t mean that he always agreed with his bosses or that he always behaved himself. During one meeting, a couple derisive comments turned into a huge screaming match. I sat there motionless and dumbstruck as John picked up a stapler and hurled it across the room, making a huge dent in the wall. It was a display of anger so intense that I honestly wasn’t sure how to respond. The whole room was silent.

Somehow, one of the managers stepped in to cool the tempers and end the meeting. Later, John apologized to me for obviously frightening me and making me uncomfortable. As the only woman in the room, I was used to these apologies after meetings got heated. Everyone assumed that their passionate outbursts would offend my delicate sensibilities. And I have to admit, I felt uncomfortable when confronted with what I saw to be unprofessional vitriol or uncontrollable anger.

John was not the last salesman I watched lose his cool during a meeting. In fact, it wasn’t even the last time I saw him stand up and scream. Apparently, we’re just an easily angered bunch. But watching that outburst and all the short fuses after it, I learned something important about how to handle myself in the face of irrational anger from my co-workers. Here’s a few tips, just in case your conference rooms get as hostile as mine.

  • Be the voice of reason. You don’t have to positive and smiley. You don’t need to make awkward jokes or try to break the tension. But keeping a level-head when the rest of your team is spouting uncontrollably proves your professionalism to your boss. It makes them more likely to trust you with stressful assignments and responsibility. And in the moment, focusing on logic can help calm the temper of your heated co-workers.
  • Don’t take things personally. When people get man, they tend to spew insults. Even if they aren’t directing them at you, it’s easy to get defensive. But anyone who is having a temper tantrum in the middle of your meeting isn’t being reasonable and you shouldn’t respond as if they are. None of it is a personal attack, so much as a loud cry of frustration.
  • What’s the root of this problem? In the case of John and the flying stapler, he was frustrated about a miscommunication between management and the salesmen. He had promised a price to his accounts and found out later that he wouldn’t be able to deliver. If you can address the basis of the problem, you might be able to bring a heated co-worker back down to earth. In this situation, John needed better communication between the office management and the team in the market. Speaking up and suggesting, “We might want to create an automatic email system to make sure that every employee is notified of pricing changes immediately so that this doesn’t happen again.”
  • Concentrate on solving the problems, not calming the temper. In that same note, when your co-workers or bosses are getting angry and irrational, you need to address the problem. Trying to back them down or cool them off can backfire, or it can put you in the middle of a messy battle. By focusing on the work and ways to improve it, you’re sure to come out this meltdown looking like the professional problem-solver. In this way, you acknowledge the issue that’s frustrating people and you ingratiate yourself to the boss who just wants everyone to calm down.
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