A Supervisor Yelling at Her General Manager

Question submitted to Ask the Workplace Doctors by a supervisor who became enraged at her General Manager.

I had a startling experience at my new job last week. I am a general manager with 6 supervisors reporting to me. One Supervisor asked for my time in the office last week. She raised a concern that I had checked off some of her tasks in our task planner system when she was not done. I acknowledged that I had because they were overdue. It is a high company priority to complete them on time. She continued to raise her voice while telling me ‘you can’t do that’.

As she became more angry and the conversation was becoming unproductive, I halted the conversation and told her we should continue when she was calmer. The employee stormed out and into her office where she got on the phone with a district Manager (whom she does not report to). I gave it about 5 minutes to collect myself and attempted to resolve the issue again by going to her office. She continued to yell at me and demand I leave her office while she was still on the phone with the district administration.

After about an hour I told my boss about the incident and also spoke to the same district admin who confirmed she heard the associate yell at me and that she was out of line. At the end of the day I again requested this associate come speak with me which she did begrudgingly. She apologized for the way she left my office but not for leaving. She felt she wasn’t being heard and that I talked over her. I certainly did cut her off, as she was yelling at me. My concern is her high level of confrontation over a simple issue as the task planner.

There are times when we all feel unheard but don’t throw a tantrum at our boss. I agreed to communicate with her in the future about issues with her task planner and apologized for my part. My question is, although I’m new and should be connecting with my staff, I feel it’s important this incident is not glossed over. Should I document this incident? I should preface that since my first day this associate has a less than friendly tone at all times. I didn’t make a big deal of it as I was new. I’ve made many gestures of teamwork to this associate to establish a connection, all of which have been ignored. I don’t know if she is testing me or is just very difficult but your advice with how to proceed would be appreciated.

Signed–New Boss

Dear New Manager:

Managers sometimes encounter unexpected flare-ups. Your “startling experience” was one that raises several issues:
–How to deal with a yelling subordinate.
–Should such an incident be reported up the line?
–Should an incident such as a subordinate angrily addressing her boss be documented, and if so, should that be made known to the woman?
–What should be done more than apologize?
–What might be done to make incivility less likely?

You are wise to reflect on such matters raised by this unhappy incident, but as you intimate you do not want to “make a big deal of it.” Such incidents are best not left to fester, and you’ve made strides by apologizing and pledging to “communicate with her in the future about issues with her task planner.”

You are well on the way to doing your part to create a climate for your workgroup that is civil and productive. This short note is to say that working through such incidents is par for the course of being a new manager. For tomorrow, focus on making those six supervisors’ jobs easier. If that is your goal, you will be making their and your workgroup effective. Don’t obsess about what happened–if you handled it the best possible or might have done if differently. There is no one sure-fix to preventing or resolving the kind of incident you experienced, but within the next few days, I will share with you a more complete answer to your questions. Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS.–William Gorden Ask the Workplace Doctors

Dear General Manager:
As promised, I’m sending a more complete answer to your central question of how to proceed. In order to not use the impersonal term “this supervisor” who was the focus of your question, I’ll refer to her as Jan, as I comment on the issues I listed in my brief email.

How to deal with a yelling subordinate. You chose to halt Jan angrily yelling at you by telling her we can talk about it later when she is calmer. That might have been your best option. Changing a location and time when a conversation is heated is usually a good move.

However, you aggravated her distress about your checking some of her tasks as completed, although not, by saying they were overdue, and in your head, if not saying so aloud, you instinctive sought to defend what you did by pointing out the fact that Jan was in the wrong. She had not completed tasks and “they were overdue.” That struck Jan as an attack and escalated her displeased voice to “You can’t do that.”

You did the best you could subsequently by apologizing and promising to communicate better. I think you now realize rather than pointing up Jan’s fault, her temperature probably wouldn’t have gone up, if you had said, “Jan, I should have talked with you about what I should report.”

Should such an incident be reported up the line is a policy-discipline question that surely is in your handbook and also is one you can get an answer to by talking with your own boss to whom you described the confrontation with Jan. Does not your organization have a three step process from oral pointing up something wrong, to a write up and then a suspension or firing? Does it not also allow and perhaps encourage a response in writing by the person written up?

You asked us, “Should I document this incident? I should preface that since my first day this associate has a less than friendly tone at all times. I didn’t make a big deal of it as I was new.” In a very real sense this yelling exchange and its oral resolution has been documented by your submitted question to us and by you telling your boss of it. So it now is history of your relationship with her. What hasn’t been documented or resolved is your perception of Jan’s “less than friendly tone at all times.” In your short time as a new general manager, this incident is old and new business that leads to the next two overlapping issues:
–What should be done more than apologize?
–What might be done to make incivility less likely?

Specifically, you need to know what is required to be reported regarding “tasks in your task planner system when they are not yet done.” This incident raises this issue and as a new manager you now will want to discuss it with your boss, and in turn with the six supervisors for whom you are to reporting tasks completed. This system is intended as a way to monitor productivity and to keep everyone on his/her toes. Its surveillance downside is the uneasy feeling of being periodically if not continuously watched for every jot and tittle.

What might better accomplish overall individual and workgroup productivity is a both boss-bossed and an organizational matter–one that the Jan confrontation has raised? In this sense it is an opportunity for you to think and work through–first in discussion with your boss and then with your supervisors.

Various tactics have been tried; most of the one-on-one systems entail a boss-bossed goal setting and performance evaluation. Some plans have linked numbers with commission and have resulted in over-selling and fraud, as was the case with Wells Fargo and other banks mortgage fiascos.

In your case, team communication is linked with how you are required to report and how you talk about what is going on. At the most basic level, that entails clarification of what is expected (what, when, and where matters). Organizations are intended to reduce uncertainty so that goods and services are delivered with little disruption. But since we as yet are not robots, establishing how we want to be monitored hinges on how we are talked to and about. Most often and too often how we communicate is assumed rather than candidly spelled out. Ideally bossed-boss and team with boss talk about talk is collaborative spelled out. How we talk in the workplace should focus on both task and tone. Incivility results from overemphasis on task and little concern about tone.

A collaborative spelling out communication dos and don’ts educates working relationships to be humane goal-setting and humane consideration of the need for autonomy and individual dignity. When that happens people feel valued and civility results. The very process of collaboratively describing out how bossed-boss talk is liked/dislike, clear/unclear, dictated/consultative and it is wanted to be reduces uncertainty and generates clarity. This awareness of process is even more important for work groups.

Is not the purpose of management coordination–developing rules and expectations that facilitate making work efficient, effective and easy? In a management course, perhaps you learned work groups come to think of and work with each other as a team when that is mapped out, such as was developed by the United States Navy in the 1950s, labelled PERT (Project or Programmed Evaluation Review Technique). PERT is designed backwards from a end-project to the critical path and sequence for achieving it–of plotting posting what, when, and who is responsible for points progressing toward the end project. In your case, it might mean engaging each of your six superiors in their PERT planning/process with those they supervise.

Of course, if and when you might engage your supervisors in any system different from what they are already in, will prove disastrous should you impose it. And that’s my point. What you do hinges on collaboration and collaboration is not imposed by a boss. More than apologize what might be done to make civil the way you manage is linked to talk about talk–how you and your team talk now, how you all want to be talked with and about, and the attention paid to process–the interdependent process.

All advice from a distance–from the distance of Ask the Workplace Doctors, must be evaluated in light of your immediate situation and your organization’s current and long-term goals. I am interested in whether any of what is sent you rings true and if you find it applies. So please feel free to reject, modify or adapt it and after a spell please update us on what you do and what does and doesn’t work. That the way we and those who consult our site learn. We don’t provide simplistic answers because we understand that questions that submitted entail a mix of many factors. Just reading the questions submitted to our site informs you about what is and can happen in the current world of work, and reviewing our communication advice is a short course for those bossed and who manage. Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS.
–Dr. G

Follow Up

I shared your question with an IT support manager of a local Akron Ohio company. She is an alumnus of our university. I predict you will find her carefully worded advice helpful: I too have experienced this same type of behavior from employees and through years of experience I have some pretty good advice. It’s all about documentation and positive coaching.

First of all, I would like to commend you for stopping the conversation when it got heated-not an easy thing to do but very smart on your behalf. It is never acceptable to scream, yell, storm off or tattle to another manager about any situation in the work place.

Advice going forward:

  1. Write up an email or word document detailing this particular encounter and how the employee behaved. Use words like insubordination and disrespect. It’s almost like this employee is bullying you because she did not get her way and its okay to state that. Share this email with your manager and HR so they are aware with what happened. You can bet that she has complained to HR so you also need to get in front of them.
  2. Schedule a follow up meeting with the employee to outline and discuss the unpleasant encounter and followed up by action items you are doing to address her concerns:
  3. Advise her going forward, I will notify you ahead of time when you are not on task with your planner. State it’s also part of her job to stay on plan and not miss deadlines.
  4. Discuss your current attempts and gestures to you have made to help build a relationship.
  5. Ask her in closing if there is anything she needs from you….
  6. Start a Coaching Document and called it “Susan’s Coaching Guide 2017”-DO NOT SHARE this with anyone but your immediate supervisor if you are asked. This is your log to keep all items with this employee documented.
  7. Document date and time of the event where she yelled and her behavior
  8. Document every confrontation going forward
  9. Document when she misses deadlines
  10. Document every time you offer a gesture to build the relationship
  11. Document any wins or successes she has to keep it positive
  12. Most importantly document times and dates when you have talked to HR or your manager about issues with this employee. They need involved and not blind sited about this employees’ behavior.

Going forward when you do deal with her regarding something unpleasant, always communicate via email so its in writing and you have proof. You can still have face to face meetings but always follow up with emails outlining the meeting, outcome and action items etc.

This coaching document comes in handy especially when you are called by HR and they want to know about a situation, you will have it right at your fingertips.

At the end of the year when you do have her annual employee review, this coaching guide will be your go to for events and timelines, both good and bad. Positive coaching is a must!

I do this with all my employees as a way to track their issues, progress and successes. Hopefully this has helped.