A reader writes:
I supervise four managers. One (who is brilliant and extremely receptive to feedback) is a younger manager who supervises someone 20+ years her senior who is argumentative and disagreeable. I can give the manager guidance about handling the argumentativeness from this employee (who is on a PIP for other issues), but – this manager has gotten very, very irritated and frustrated with her direct report and is snapping at her – yelling, even – which is very out of character.
I don’t blame the manager for being frustrated, but we’ve talked about how the goal isn’t to communicate to the employee that you’re outraged; it’s to communicate that the behavior needs to change and that there are consequences for not changing the behavior. What the employee is doing wrong isn’t outrageous, it’s just not okay and is really grating on the manager’s nerves. We’ve also talked about how she needs to remain calm and use a professional and even tone. She knows all that (in fact, she’s the one who brought this up with me), and wants to respond more appropriately, but is struggling to find the right words to say in the moment when she’s so irritated and angry. Her interactions with this employee have really hurt her confidence in her skills as a supervisor, and while I want to help her get back on balance, the yelling has to stop.
I encouraged her to take a vacation so she could step back for a while, but that didn’t seem to make much of a difference. What can I do to help this amazing manager get back on her feet?
Well, you’re absolutely right to be addressing this and not letting it go. Yelling and snapping at people (or otherwise showing hostility) is hugely damaging to a manager’s authority, credibility, and reputation, and it will make good people not want to work for her.
I’m not surprised that you think part of the problem is that she doesn’t have words to use in the moment; managers who yell often do it because they really don’t know any other way of getting what they need done. They’re missing some of the core tools that managers have to have in their tool boxes, and that lack makes them feel frustrated and desperate.
That means that the way to address this is by arming her with those tools. Often for managers, especially new managers, that just means being prepared with the language to use in difficult situations. So I’d sit down with her and review some of the situations where she snapped or yelled, and talk about what she could have said instead. For instance, she may need to have phrases like this in her arsenal:
* “We talked last week about how important it was to do X, but it’s still undone. What happened?”
* “I’m concerned that we’ve talked several times about Y, but I haven’t seen any improvement. What’s going on?”
* “The way you talked to Jane in the meeting was dismissive and caused her to shut down. Can we talk about how to approach that differently?”
* “When you missed yesterday’s deadline, I had to stay late to ensure the work got done. I need to be able to count on you to meet your deadlines.”
* “I hear you that it can be challenging to ____, but I need the person in your role to meet that bar.”
* “Because we’ve talked about this several times before, I’m concerned about the pattern I’m seeing in your work.”
Without knowing more about exactly what’s provoking her frustration, I can’t pinpoint the precise language she needs — but the idea is that you want to arm her with specific language to respond appropriately in similar situations in the future. It should be calm, assertive, and direct — and not emotional.
It’s also important to note that in the examples I gave above, there’s an implied “or else,” which is about consequences. When you’re having a serious conversation with an employee about concerns with that person’s performance or behavior, you should be clear in your own mind that if talking through the issues doesn’t resolve the problem, you have the ability to escalate the consequences — up to and including firing. This is key, because a manager who doesn’t believe in her own ability to impose consequences is a manager without the tools she needs to perform her own job. That’s what leads to feeling frustrated, helpless, and angry — which can lead to yelling. But a manager who is clear on her own authority to impose consequences knows that she has the tools she needs to get the results she’s charged with achieving, and therefore can act more calmly.
And speaking of consequences … This manager needs to understand what the consequences are in the situation for her. This isn’t a nice-to-change thing; it’s a must-change. Consequences of not changing it include a team who won’t respect her, great people not wanting to work for her, employees who will be afraid to give her tough news, and a generally less productive staff (since unhappy, demoralized people are less productive). Consequences also should probably include an impact on her career path in your organization; you can’t have someone managing people who responds to basic managerial challenges this way. You’re right to be supportive and to coach her on this, but if you don’t see pretty immediate improvement, it’s a serious performance issue in its own right — don’t lose sight of that.