Anger that isn't noticed and addressed can turn into one of the dramatic cases where someone ends up getting hurt.
It takes all kinds to make a workplace function. Unfortunately, some of those kinds can be employees who are disgruntled, discouraged or overtly upset — either with you as the boss, or with the company.
People who are upset act out in a variety of ways. Some might come into your office and yell and curse, others adopt a passive-aggressive stance and don't admit they are upset but make sure they aren't productive for you, and others can turn the anger or frustration internally and become depressed and lower-functioning.
As a leader, it's important both to recognize the signs of an angry employee and to know how to deal with them effectively. Telling someone who is yelling at you to "just calm down," for example, isn't going to work very often.
Why do employees get angry in the first place?
Let's first uncover some of the reasons behind this emotion. Sometimes employees look at others in the company and think they themselves are "better" or "more effective," but perceive the other person to be treated in a more supportive fashion, or rewarded more often.
This perceived, or real, inequality leads to a lack of confidence in him- or herself, as well as in the management doling out the rewards.
Sometimes an employee gets upset because they are given tasks or a role in the company that they are ill-suited to fill. The introvert who gets stressed by interacting with people and who is asked to go sell for the HVACR company may go do it, but could stew inside at being asked to step so far out of their natural comfort zone.
Other employees may irritate a colleague. They may have annoying habits, or talk down to someone else, or provide incorrect information. In some cases they may overtly try to sabotage another person. The employee who is on the receiving end of the subtle or overt behavior may become increasingly angry at being picked on, or subjected to the behavior.
In other cases, the employee is undergoing personal issues and dealing with something outside of the workplace that impacts their workplace attitude. Divorce, difficulty with children, an ill child or parent can all be sources of stress that manifest into anger, particularly when the employee doesn't feel they are being supported by their boss or the workplace.
These upset, frustrated and angry employees can come across in different ways.
As a leader, you want to watch your employees for signs of changes in behavior. Is someone appearing to sulk in meetings more often, are they giving short clipped answers when they were formerly a talkative person, are they responding to innocent questions with hostile answers?
Most employees shift their behavior in subtle ways at first, and then more noticeably if the behavior goes unchecked. As the leader, you want to be sure you are in touch with the behavior of your staff or encouraging your managers to know what's happening with each of their people.
Anger that isn't noticed and addressed can turn into one of the dramatic cases where someone ends up getting hurt by the angry employee.
Once you have identified the shift in behavior, or you decide to address an employee who is regularly nasty or negative, there are a few things you want to do in order to deal with the person effectively.
Seek to Understand
The common desire is to squash the negative, angry behavior, but as outlined here, there are many reasons why your employee could be angry.
Many people have never been taught to deal with uncomfortable or negative emotions. They don't know how to manage themselves, and so they act out in ineffective ways. While you can't condone the negative, angry behavior in your workplace, you can first approach the employee with compassion and an observation that something must be wrong.
You can start by saying something like, "It's just not like you to be so sullen in our Monday meetings, Hugh; is there anything going on that is impacting you negatively?" or "I'm a bit concerned. I've observed you speaking in a very angry tone to Stella, our receptionist, and she has mentioned being afraid to talk with you; has Stella done something? Is there a problem we need to address?"
It's important to get the dialogue going without being accusatory but rather by uncovering the source.
Specifically, identify what the employee is doing.
Don't just say, "What's up with the lousy attitude lately, Mark?"
Your definition of "lousy attitude" may be different from Mark's. Sometimes people know exactly what they are doing, but many times they don't.
Be clear and specific: "I detect a negative undertone to a lot of your comments lately. For example, in today's meeting you said ..." or "The customer from the north end called and said you were behaving in an angry manner. She said you threw down your tools when you couldn't get the unit to work. Is that true? What happened?"
The more specific and exacting you can be, the better the employee can understand what they've done.
Deal directly with the employee, not with their colleagues, to find out what's going on. Too many times a manager or business owner will ask around to try and learn information about the employee in question.
They may seek input from a friend or colleague of the person — something like, "Hey, do you notice anything strange about Ed lately? What's going on?"
It can seem innocent, as if you are just trying to validate your interpretation by asking others, but it is very disruptive and hurtful to the employee you are querying about. If you want to know what's going on, go right to the source.
Be a Model
Model the behavior you want to see. Many times those in charge don't realize the messages they are sending by the behavior they favor.
If you tend to outbursts in meetings, speak harshly to employees when they do something wrong, or "stew" when you are upset about things going on in your company, your employees will get the message that this type of behavior is okay.
They might even interpret it as the favored approach. Watch yourself and see what employees see.
Most people don't learn well how to handle their emotions, especially negative ones. It's very likely that at some point you will be faced with an employee whose behavior you reject.
Try using one or more of these approaches and see if you can't turn their negative behavior into something more positive.
Beverly Flaxington is a certified professional behavioral analyst (CPBA), hypnotherapist and career and business adviser who specializes in helping managers and employees deal with difficult workplace relationships, performance issues and goal achievement. She's the author of five business and financial books, including the award-winning book "Understanding Other People: The Five Secrets to Human Behavior," and her latest book, "Make Your SHIFT: The Five Most Powerful Moves You Can Make to Get Where YOU Want to Go" (ATA Press, 2012). Learn more at the-collaborative.com.