Have you ever found yourself in the following situation?
You sit down with an employee (let’s call him Lou) to have a discussion about something…call it a deadline missed…and Lou’s reaction is completely different than you expected. Lou begins to argue and try to defend himself, and this isn’t typical behavior for him. When you try to calm Lou down, he gets more argumentative. You offer Lou a minute to gather his composure, and he says he isn’t upset.
It’s enough to make you wonder…”what’s a manager to do?”
As a certified coach and organizational development consultant, I am often asked how to handle this issue with my clients. My response is nearly always the same: it depends. The way you handle this situation will vary depending on unique factors and relationships. The most important first step is to keep your cool, or more technically termed, “emotional intelligence”. According to the Oxford Dictionary, emotional intelligence is: “the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.” Simply put, it’s the ability to maintain your “cool” when all around you is in chaos.
In his book, Good to Great, author and leadership guru, Jim Collins talks about effective and enlightened leaders using the “window-mirror” analogy. He states that effective leaders look out the window to give credit to their team for successes and look in the mirror to take responsibility for things that don’t go as planned. And ineffective leaders do the opposite. Using this analogy and combining it with the concept of emotional intelligence, a wise leader would look at his or her contribution to Lou’s reaction.
A few things could be happening:
- Lou could have something going on personally about which you are not aware, and it could be impacting his reaction.
- Lou could be upset with you about something and this conversation is a “tipping point”, meaning it was the conversation that caused him to “break”.
- Lou could have thought your presentation was personal and not professional.
And of course, there could be other reasons as well.
With the examples above, your first response should be to wonder why these behaviors are occurring….get down to the bottom of it. In my experience, this step is the most often skipped, and yet most important part. You can use a simple comment like, “Lou, it seems that you have something on your mind. I wasn’t expecting your reaction. Can we talk about it?” You may be surprised to receive some feedback about your presentation that you can use to help fill in a blind spot about the way others view you. (And be sure to thank Lou for providing that feedback to you.)
Once you know a little more, it is usually much easier to resolve the conflict. If the situation is a personal one, you might suggest that Lou let you know there is something that is impacting his work before the deadline is coming. If happens to be situation number 2 or 3 above, you will want to work on your relationship with Lou, and maybe even your team.
I have run into situations in which employees have begun to cry or are on the very verge of tears when being coached or counseled on their performance. The best advice I can offer is to allow the employee to have a minute to pull themselves together. Acknowledging the emotion helps, as well. I recommend something like, “I can see that you are upset. Do you need a few minutes to pull yourself together before we finish our conversation?” This statement both acknowledges the emotion and lets the employee know that you respect their feelings, but need to finish the conversation.
And one last thing, Lou may not have realized his reaction was so strong, therefore by bringing it to his attention, you may be helping him resolve a blind spot in his own presence.