5 Tips for Dealing with Emotional Outbursts at Work

Self Promotion is a Leadership Competency – Striking the right tone
Being More Assertive: Finding the Sweet Spot

Supporting someone’s ambitions when they have emotional outbursts at work is a challenge. But that’s exactly the time when you get to show your leadership.

Dealing with emotional outbursts at work is never easy. I give you that. But it’s a chance to show your leadership chops. Will you put the good of the team above your own ego or will you give into your own need to establish your authority?

Parody of The Scream by artist Meowza

Parody of The Scream by artist Meowza

Emotional outbursts have a way of arising in the least practical moments. Naturally, when people are most stressed over important deadlines or key decisions or situations, there’s a tendency for emotions to flare up. Or for any little thing to become the straw that breaks the camel’s back, which results in an unpleasant emotional outburst.

I recently finished a mayor project, a milestone in my career. A day 20 years in the making, let alone the several weeks leading to the celebration for which I had invested lots of preparation and energy. The day was here and everything was going smoothly. Then suddenly, one of my team members confronted me with the fact that I was not treating her the way she expected to be treated. She was having an emotional breakdown over this. It stopped me in my tracks. Really? At the very moment when I was celebrating a major achievement I had to deal with an emotional outburst? Well, that’s exactly how it usually goes, isn’t it? When you least need it… But then again, what is the right time for emotional outbursts in the workplace?

Here’s a post on Recognizing a Hostile Work Environment you might like.
Resolving conflict inspirational quote - Listening, honestly listening, is a critical piece of resolving conflict

How good a listener are you?

I realized immediately that to deal with my own stress that day I had adopted a “shorthand” style of communication that came across as imperative. I trusted that my colleague would be able to decode the fact that this was a temporary style change due to the demanding circumstances I was facing. (My bad, because we didn’t know each other that well yet.) I apologized right away. But she wouldn’t stop.

I could see that something else was at play with her. Regardless of what her perception was of how I treated her, I’m also aware that nothing I did deserved such an overreaction. I may have been short. Never abusive. And nothing that would justify such an emotional outburst. Nothing that couldn’t have waited a couple of hours to get resolved.

5 tips for dealing with emotional outbursts in your organization

This topic is particularly relevant when managing Latinos and other ethnicities who are known to have a more passionate communication style. At times that passion may come across as an emotional outburst when it’s only an expression of what they care about. And the truth is that you don’t want to eliminate passion from the workplace because it is what moves people and in the end, what makes it an interesting place to work. But there’s a difference between expressing your emotions and having an emotional outburst. So your role is to help people learn to modulate their emotional temperature to be more effective communicators.

These are 5 of the actions that have served me well whenever confronted by emotional outbursts in a professional setting.

1Breathe

Yup, that’s my first suggestion. Breathe and center yourself. Be present. Let go of whatever else is going on and focus on the here and now. On this person in front of you (or on the phone) who, if not dealt with in an adequate fashion, might turn a bad situation into a much worse one. After you focus for a moment you might decide this is not your biggest problem right now, and that’s fine. But you need to take a couple of breaths to decide that.

2Give people the benefit of the doubt

Head of a Woman by Pablo Picasso at the Met

Allowing the expression of emotions in the workplace is important. It’s emotional outbursts that we must learn to control.

All of us, particularly women, are subject to so many pressures from so many fronts all the time that there are likely many aspects of their lives you ignore. We expect people to leave their personal problems at the door but if people did that, you’d be working with robots. So you have to take individuals as a whole. And again, emotions are good indicators of what people care about. We are only talking about their most extreme expression. That’s why my next suggestion is that when someone behaves inappropriately you give them the benefit of the doubt at least once.

Faced with emotional outbursts or overreactions, stop for a second and entertain the possibility that there might be something else at play that has nothing to do with you. Not that this gives people a pass to have an emotional flare up at work but it may help you better understand their circumstances and be more lenient. You still will need to have a conversation about modulating emotional temperature and not taking things so personally. But it will help you put away your own feelings and temptation to overreact yourself.

3Don’t add fuel to the fire.

Emotions quote by Maya Angelou - People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel

When an emotional outburst makes someone feel horrible, they will remember and it will affect your professional future.

Listening, honestly listening, is always a critical piece of resolving conflicts. And for that to happen, the person who is having the emotional outburst needs to feel she’s not being ignored. At this point, avoid debating, contradicting or asking for explanations. Admit that you hear what they are saying and that this is not the right time to discuss the topic any further. Make sure the person understands this is not a delay tactic but a commitment to address the issue at a more appropriate time. Then, follow through.

4Don’t draw lines in the sand.

When someone is pushing your buttons at the wrong time it obviously requires a good amount of self-control to avoid the need to give ultimatums and draw lines in the sand. Once again, a trait shared by strong leaders and which reveals solid executive presence in those aspiring to be leaders. So exercise self-control for a better outcome.

5Have the conversation

Set up the meeting to have the conversation you promised them and calmly ask the person to reflect on what happened that day. Let them come to the realization that regardless of who was right or wrong, there is no room for emotional outbursts at work. This is a chance for them to identify their own triggers and find ways to better manage stress and deal with conflicts to avoid future emotional outbursts.

Overcoming emotional outbursts quote - This too shall pass... so take a deep breath

Leaders have a chance to show their skills when they deal well with emotional outbursts

During this conversation, you might want to share some of the consequences of emotional outbursts in a professional setting:

  • Erosion of professional reputation
  • Perception that she lacks self control, therefore executive presence and potential loss of future opportunities
  • Damage to one’s personal brand
  • Damage to team morale
  • Don’t miss this HBR wonderful piece on emotional outbursts!

Since the day of the emotional outburst my colleague has produced great work for me. It was a learning occasion for both of us but it has undoubtedly planted red flags in my mind in regards to assigning her future high stakes projects. And this is the message you must strive to convey to women in your team. When you give into the heat of the moment and have an emotional outburst at work, you impacting your career long term. So think twice before you jump off the deep end.

Self Promotion is a Leadership Competency – Striking the right tone
Being More Assertive: Finding the Sweet Spot
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Award-winning, best-selling author, corporate consultant and international speaker on career success and women empowerment. Frequent media contributor on CNN, Univision, Telemundo and others. Her latest book "Find Your Inner Red Shoes" is the backbone of the Red Shoe Movement.
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