Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about angry subordinate:
I invited one of my employees whom I consider to be on track for a management position, to a 2-day strategic session with other managers and a vendor. The first day he spoke almost the entire time, interrupting people and myself. I’ve since discovered that on that day he had a very lengthy sidebar conversation with another manager, which concerns me.
On Day Two, I was speaking and standing at the white board. On the first sign of his standing up to interrupt, I asked him to go back to his seat and that it was my turn to talk. I meant to say it in a way that was somewhat playful, but I may not have carried it off. He crossed his arms and stayed that way for the rest of the day, contributing little or nothing to the discussion, even when I invited him to speak.
When I asked him afterwards if he could tell me why he seemed angry, he said that I had been rude to him and he was terribly humiliated. I explained why I stopped him. He talked at length about how he felt I was wrong about my statements at the meeting and he was trying to correct me! I’m confident about my knowledge and still feel that he spoke excessively and without consideration for others. Since then he has attended a staff meeting I held and in that meeting he contributed appropriately. Still, this has been upsetting and I am at a loss as to what to do next.
Signed, Concerned Manager
Dear Concerned Manager:
This will be a lengthy response because there are several issues involved. Before I respond specifically to your concern about what to do next in your situation with the upset employee, let me mention a foundational issue that I think is important. Any time an employee is asked to participate in something normally reserved for those in higher management it is an informal–but important–test. If you had a clipboard with a rating sheet for “Greg”, like an Annual Performance Evaluation, it would probably have had these rating areas: Professional and Organizational Knowledge, Interpersonal Skills, Team Skills, Collaboration and Cooperation, Communication Skills, Management Readiness and Leadership. On a scale of 1-10 where was he at the end of the first day? It sounds as though he would have been 5 or below in everything except, perhaps, Knowledge. Even giving him the benefit of the doubt and saying he felt this was his big chance to demonstrate his value, it says something about his character that he would do it that way. It sounds as though he felt he was more knowledgeable than you and wanted to display it (ostensibly to help.)
Further, when you asked him about his anger, instead of seeking to solve a problem or find out how he could come across differently the next time, he talked excessively again, this time to explain that you were wrong and he was right, so he felt he was justified in interrupting you. If he continues to act that way and is promoted to a first level manager’s position, can you imagine trying to guide or direct him? How would he likely be about being held accountable and not blaming others? Would you want to be a subordinate of his, if he steamrollered over you as he did in the meeting? I’d say he didn’t pass his management test! Maybe he will sometime in the future, but not now, without some major changes.
So, those are my thoughts about the big picture of this employee. Now, moving on to your situation. As you undoubtedly have thought already, the time to correct him about his behavior was at a break on Day One, or at the end of day at the latest. You probably hoped that he would calm down by the second day, but that usually doesn’t happen. He probably felt more emboldened on the second day. You say that he and a peer of yours had a long, long private discussion on Day One. It may be that your peer made Greg feel he was correct to speak up and interrupt you in your explanations. Your peer may have agreed with him, which is something you’ll want to find out anyway.
Here are some approaches and actions to consider:
1. This is a relatively innocuous situation, in that you didn’t do anything inappropriate or extreme. You reacted to a frustration and now have talked about it to the employee and both of you should be able to move forward. He might not see it that way, but that will be another good test.It has probably been good for him to become aware that your goal as a manager is to encourage him but also, for the good of the business, to help him develop, even if it’s sometimes painful for him and you both.Many managers and executives would have been much less concerned about his feelings than you were. Sometimes helping people save face merely protects them from the results of their actions. Your leadership role now is to keep lines of communication open so he can continue to develop and help the company succeed. You seem to be doing that, which is a very positive action on your part.
2. I think it would be worthwhile to speak briefly to the peer manager who you think may have inadvertently (or purposely) encouraged Greg. If that isn’t the case, at least you will have let your peer know that you did not like the way Greg behaved and that as a management team you don’t think that kind of behavior should be encouraged or accepted. It also lets him know that his conversation was noticed.
Often when there is the slightest rift in a management team, eager employees pick up on it and see it as a chance to advance their own causes. That’s just human, even though it can be a problem when carried too far. But, the way for someone to develop into the most effective manager is to learn to build relationships not take advantage of them or to weaken them. A strong and cohesive organizational management team may have different styles and personal goals, but no good comes from pulling in different directions, especially at critical times. So, this conversation with your peer manager will show your thoughts about that. (You may not think that would have value–it’s just a suggestion for this overall situation.) If Greg has a direct supervisor among your peers you may want to discuss this with that person as well, since he or she is more likely to have noticed similar things. I don’t think that is over-reacting to Greg’s behavior.
It sounds as though you have plenty of challenges as a company and a manager without letting disruptive habits develop anywhere in the company. Rarely is a problem at work obvious the very first time, so his behavior probably has caused conflict in his work group as well. Some other employees in your company might be thrilled to have Greg gotten under control a bit.
3. It seems you have already done the most appropriate things in response to this situation. You asked Greg about his feelings, you responded to his concerns and now he is at least cooperating in discussions. He may realize he made a mistake and even though he tried to justify it to you, he won’t do that again. All of us have had times when we have been a bit piqued over something that happened to us, but time and subsequent events diminished it. The fact that you have been concerned enough to discuss it with others, indicates that you are not a mean-spirited person who doesn’t care. That probably is obvious in your work. In fact, that may have been what was so shocking to Greg–it never occurred to him that you would not support and encourage him, no matter what.Now he knows, and it was probably a good thing. You say you weren’t overtly rude, so others in the group probably realized the need for your actions. Now, you can just move forward and let Greg show his good intentions by the way he deals with it.
4. If the matter comes up again, try to limit it to a few sentence “broken record statement” you can say. I don’t know what that might be for this situation. Maybe something like, “Greg, I’ve heard your reasons about the meeting and how you felt about being stopped. What I want you to take away from this is that you weren’t the only one with expertise, but you spoke much more than others and shut down some contributions. Next time, be a good listener too.” (That may not be a great series of sentences for your situation, just an example of something that makes a point and doesn’t get you in an argument with an employee.)
If he continues to talk about how he felt obligated to correct things, just smile and say, with finality, “It’s over now and we’ve talked about it enough. Let’s move forward.” Then, end the conversation.5. I hope you will identify some others who could use encouragement and give those employees the same opportunities to “test” for their management potential. Even if they are not necessarily interested in managing others or projects, they might appreciate recognition of their value to the organization. It will also be useful to establish that everyone can contribute, not just the apparent rising stars.
Without the business, no-one has a role. So, value to the business at every level and in every role, is a priority. Dr Gorden uses the phrase, “Working together with head, heart and hands takes and makes big WEGOS” to describe the concept of individuals working together as a team. Those same actions build companies that are financially successful, ethical and good places to work. Best wishes to you with this situation and the others that may be part of it. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens.
Tina Lewis Rowe