How to recover when an office confrontation turns into the showdown at the O.K. Corral

Q: I’m a mid-level manager in a large company and supervise an overbearing woman whose special circumstances give her immunity from discipline. When she doesn’t get her way, she goes on a rant and says horrible, accusing things. Generally, she explodes at me in my office, and while other employees can hear her angry voice through the walls, I remain calm. For the first time this morning, I lost it as well.

When I realized what I’d done, and that I’d left my office door open so there was no sound barrier, I was completely embarrassed. I pulled the team together and apologized to everyone, even the woman. Everyone was shaken up, except her, and as one employee said to me as she exited the meeting, “we’ve never seen you that way.”

Later, I overheard a couple of employees talking in the break room and one said “now we know the real” and then said my name.

Everyone’s walking around tense, and I feel I’ve at least temporarily lost the respect of my employees. I don’t know what to do. Should I let this go or do something more to fix it, like go from employee to employee and apologize individually?

A: When two individuals “go at” each other, particularly when one is the manager, it unnerves everyone who overhears the confrontation. In this case, your showdown at the O.K. Corral influenced how at least some of your employees view you. You’ve done initial damage control with your apology and group meeting.

You need to do more, starting with how you relate to the employee you describe as “even the woman.” She’s your employee, and you and she need to figure out better ways to relate so you won’t have follow-up explosions. You describe her as immune from discipline. If so, try an alternative strategy — provide her a coach who can teach her how to express herself without ranting. While rewarding her by investing in her professional development may seem counterintuitive, consider it a gift to yourself, particularly if it eliminates her ranting episodes.

If you’ve remained calm in the past by stuffing down your frustration, you might benefit from executive coaching yourself, particularly if the coach can help you figure out how to present a case to senior management or your HR officer that details the cost involved when a company immunizes any employee from discipline.

Avitus HR Manager Emily Heller urges you to “loop your HR officer in sooner rather than later.” As Heller notes: “Managers often don’t contact HR about a problem employee until they learn the employee has visited HR. Then, when the manager comes forward it can look like retaliation. By talking with HR at the onset, you can give them the ‘rest of the story,’ before your employee complains.”

This can enable them to ask your complaining employee more probing questions.
Heller also wonders if your employee has as much immunity as you think she does. “While managers need to accommodate some employee circumstances,” Heller says. “They don’t have to put up with anything and everything an employee can dish out, including bullying.”

Next, your role as a department manager requires that you set an example, even with an employee who stretches your patience to the limit. Because you fell short of this when you let your employee push your button, individually apologize to each of your employees for the drama they witnessed. When you apologize, don’t excuse yourself with statements such as “I lost my cool in the heat of the moment.” Such statements grant you an escape clause for the next “hot incident.” You need to say that it will not happen again — and mean it.

Finally, you stepped on a landmine when you allowed an employee’s outburst to ignite your temper. Don’t fall into a related trap. When employees perceive a manager as having issues with a coworker, some may seek to take advantage of the rift. If any of your employees pulls you aside to air their negative views about this employee, watch out. You can listen but don’t talk, because when a manager badmouths one employee to another, it inevitably backfires.

 

© Dr. Lynne Curry is author of “Beating the Workplace Bully” and “Solutions” as well as Regional Director of Training and Business Consulting for The Growth Company, an Avitus Group Company. Follow her on Twitter @lynnecury10 or at http://www.bullywhisperer.com.

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