Handling a co-worker with a temper
February 4, 2014 6:57 PM   Subscribe

Co-worker with a temper blew up at me today. What do I say to him tomorrow?

I will try to keep this short, so feel free to ask if this is not clear. It was basically a house of cards situation where a two-person supervision task I am normally involved in got delayed by a few minutes because someone was away. Somebody else was filling in for her, but they could not leave their usual post for that time period until a this person arrived to relieve them. When she did arrive, I sent her to get started while I waited for a few stragglers. During this point the co-worker with the temper (who had been waiting for us to relieve him so he could go on his break) exploded at me.

Among his other rantings was a threat to tell the boss; I understood from what I heard after that he did so did so and she pretty much told him that it wasn't her problem and he should talk to me. I assume he plans to do so. what?

I so think he misunderstood the chain of events here and I was blameless in this situation. But irrespective of whether I am right or wrong about that, I feel that I deserves the professional courtesy of him coming to me afterward to respectfully clarify rather than yelling at me in a hallway full of people. Of the two issues (my blame or not, and how it all was handled) that is the point I would like to emphasize. If he does have any questions or concerns or problems with me ever again, I am a reasonable person who can respond professionally and I do NOT care to be yelled at again.

I am going to wait for him to make the first move on this. When he does, how should I attempt to guide the conversation?
posted by JoannaC to Human Relations (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Why are you going to wait for him to make the first move? If this were me, I would find a time tomorrow to take him aside, and let him know that his behaviour was unacceptable.

Something along the lines of "Steve, I realise that you were frustrated that your break was delayed yesterday. I'm sorry that happened, and would be happy to explain the sequence of events which led to the delay. However, yelling at me in front of other people is not an acceptable way to treat me, and I need you to assure me that this will not happen again."

If you take a proactive approach that lets him know there is no excuse for his behaviour, then you're focusing on the actual issue - what he did - and not what caused it.

In the (likely) event that he loses his temper again, simply say something along the lines of "Steve, I've explained that yelling at me is unacceptable. I'm happy to continue this conversation when you are better able to control yourself" and then leave.
posted by dotgirl at 7:06 PM on February 4 [37 favorites]

"I did what was necessary at the time, given the constraints I was working with. You do not, EVER, get to blow up at me like that again. It's completely unacceptable."

And then you walk away. Best case, he comes after you to apologize. Worst case, he's angry, but you've set a limit and you can (and should) stick by it in the future.
posted by jaguar at 7:06 PM on February 4 [6 favorites]

I'm a bit unclear whether the person with the temper was your supervisor, your underling, or your equal; those would actually all affect how I'd respond. Can you clarify?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:23 PM on February 4

He is my equal. I appreciate the responses so far. I wonder if he would respond to such forthright attitude from me or if more deference is called for.
posted by JoannaC at 7:27 PM on February 4

I'd mock the bloke.

Seriously.. I have a terrible temper, and if I'd blown up at someone at work, I'd be mortified. He probably feels like shit about the incident: it's obviously unprofessional. Sink the boot.
posted by pompomtom at 7:29 PM on February 4 [1 favorite]

Don't defer to someone who acted so unprofessionally. It sets a bad precedent. talk to him, don't talk to him, whatever, but if you talk to him, don't apologize.
posted by rtha at 7:52 PM on February 4 [26 favorites]

Whatever you say, say it in person and not by email.

If this were my peer, I'd ask them into a meeting, shut the door, and ask them if there was something they wanted to say. Hopefully you'd get the apology you deserve. If not I'd calmly tell them their behavior was unwarranted, unprofessional and unacceptable.
posted by MuffinMan at 8:02 PM on February 4

It matters less what he thinks than what the boss thinks.

Explain at the first opportunity what really went down to her and then ask whether she has any preferences as to how you handle him.

Be guided by her response, then report back to her how it went with him.
posted by jamjam at 8:07 PM on February 4 [3 favorites]

If he starts to ever yell at you again, tell him, "When you can control yourself and act like a professional we will continue this conversation." Turn around and walk off.
posted by JujuB at 8:18 PM on February 4 [2 favorites]

Yes, talk to your boss, if you talk to anyone.

Is this a habit for this guy? Maybe then talk to the boss.

Otherwise, you should feel superior to this bully and act like it from here on out.

In the moment, you could have curtly informed him that raising his voice towards you is highly inappropriate, but no, I would not confront him after the fact.

If he apologizes, be polite and say, "Thank you."

I really really do not think you should further this drama for your own sake.

He's a jerk. Everybody knows it now.

Your best bet is to disengage.
posted by jbenben at 8:20 PM on February 4 [2 favorites]

I wonder if he would respond to such forthright attitude from me or if more deference is called for

No, you do not have to walk on eggshells because you work with someone with an apparent impulse control problem. He would probably prefer for everyone around him to mould themselves around his work habits, needs and moods, as they've been psychically intuited. I am not sure this is possible, but it's not desirable, for you or your colleagues (or the workflow).

Dotgirl offered you clear and professional words to use. Deliver them (or your manager's line) in as calm a manner as you're able, that's all you can or should do.
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:22 PM on February 4 [2 favorites]

If his reaction was out of proportion to the circumstance, then you might pursue a line of questioning that seeks to understand the real problem. Tell him you know he's not an insane person, so his anger must be a reaction to something real that happened either at work or elsewhere in his life, and you would like to know what it is so that you can address that if appropriate.
posted by amtho at 8:49 PM on February 4

About this instance I would say, "Please speak to me as you'd like to be spoken to." And if anyone does this again, don't engage; say that you'll talk with them when they calm down.
posted by wryly at 10:54 PM on February 4

No one should be yelling at you at work. There's no gray area here.

If it happens again, document the incidents and email your manager about it. You should talk in person too, of course, but sending an email to your manager post-meeting to recap your conversation creates a record that will bolster your position with HR or an attorney - yours or the company's.
posted by cartoonella at 1:40 AM on February 5 [2 favorites]

If his reaction was out of proportion to the circumstance, then you might pursue a line of questioning that seeks to understand the real problem. Tell him you know he's not an insane person, so his anger must be a reaction to something real that happened either at work or elsewhere in his life, and you would like to know what it is so that you can address that if appropriate.

Noooo. You are not his therapist. His anger is not your problem to solve. Even if he was totally right to be angry, he doesn't need to yell about it.

dotgirl's approach is exactly what I would do. I've said similar things in both professional and personal environments, to great effect.
posted by desjardins at 7:09 AM on February 5 [2 favorites]

In both cases, you are relying on him for the resolution and giving him power. If he decides to disregard what you say and challenge you, you have no way of enforcing those statements. However, you can take it up with your boss if something like this happens again, or things escalate.

Well, the reality is the OP is stuck with giving this guy the option to offer his consent and improve his behaviour on his own (giving him power) or openly threatening to 'rat' (I'm not against taking it up one level, but he may see it differently).

I think it's better to appeal to his better self in the first instance and not mention the second option.

(And re another comment: it's absolutely not up to the OP to figure out who peed in this guy's cornflakes, or what happened to him when he was 9, or whether someone cut him off on the highway coming in. Doesn't matter, not her problem.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 7:52 AM on February 5

I wonder if he would respond to such forthright attitude from me or if more deference is called for.

More deference means more yelling. You have to stand up yourself calmly and professionally. Appeasement does not work with bullies or screamers.
posted by cnc at 9:58 AM on February 5 [2 favorites]

When I was a supervisor (thank G moved out of that position) I employed what I call the PNP sandwich when dealing with difficult people. PNP= Positive, Negative, Positive. So, in your case you might say (of course I'm sure you can come up with something better):

John, I'm sorry I wasn't able to relieve you as planned, it was out of my hands. But I won't tolerate you yelling at me in front of our peers. If you have a beef, take me aside and calmly tell me. I'm always willing to listen to you as long as you act professionally.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 11:18 AM on February 5 [1 favorite]

I have a theory why people lose their temper at work. We all have a threshold beyond which we'd lose our composure (e.g. if the project that's taken us 2 years is botched by someone else's mistake, or if a coworker's lack of attention loses a customer that we worked dozens of weekends to land, etc). We might not yell in the hallway, but perhaps we'd say sarcastic insults, or gripe viciously to our work-friends, or let our anger show in a different unprofessional way.

Everyone has a different threshold, and some people are very close to their threshold due to accumulated grievances or stress in another area of their life. This was illustrated in the movie "Crash". People in that movie became so stressed by events (e.g. potential divorce, parents' illness) that they were easily tipped over into unprofessional behavior.

Afterwards we may feel regretful, but it's hard to control in the moment.

All of this is to say that his behavior toward you was not excusable, but I think it'll be more effective to walk away in the moment than to rely on expecting him to change. I would send him a note saying, "We all have the same goals, so please don't yell at me in the hallway. Just pull me aside next time."

If it happens, say "I don't want to be yelled at. Let's talk when we can speak calmly." and walk away.

Also, if you didn't do anything wrong, don't take it personally. It'll bother you a lot if you draw conclusions such as "he yelled at me because he respects me less than our other coworkers" or "he thinks I'm incompetent" or "he thinks he can get away with it because I lack authority". The more likely explanation is that his reason for blowing up is not related to you. This doesn't excuse him, but will make you less unhappy.
posted by cheesecake at 12:35 PM on February 5

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