update: managing an employee with inappropriate emotional outbursts

Remember the letter-writer whose sister managed someone who kept having inappropriate emotional responses like “I should not have to tell you what’s wrong if you don’t know” and who was sending her abusive text messages like “I think I need to know if you get the depth of how betrayed I feel” and “I am so hurt that I want to destroy you”?

Here’s the update.

Thank you again for your responses to my question. I think that the feedback was what my sister needed to realize that Jane’s behavior was Not Okay, not as a friend and certainly not as an employee. She immediately confronted Jane and told her that her behavior was unacceptable, and that she was not allowed to communicate that way anymore (and texting was totally off the table). Jane’s response? “What is the process for resigning?” That’s right – the second my sister imposed a boundary, she quit!

Unfortunately, that did not mean her immediate exit. A major contract was dependent on Jane’s involvement in the organization and they had to drag her exit process out until this month. In the meantime, my sister and I found some resources on another AAM favorite, Captain Awkward, on how to deal with difficult people (Jane very closely resembles Alice from this letter). My sister determined there was no way for her to change Jane’s narcissistic behavior, just her reaction to it, and spent the rest of Jane’s tenure raising and enforcing boundaries. This meant shutting down Jane’s attempts to discuss her feelings and brushing aside passive-aggressive comments. When other employees would complain about my sister’s treatment of Jane (really, Jane has something of a cult leader personality and had a lot of influence over trainees), my sister handled the situation professionally and matter-of-factly.

As of a couple of weeks ago, Jane is no longer with the organization as a full-time employee, but does continue to do some work on a contract basis. It does not involve my sister. My sister is still actively looking for a new job, as she has real doubts that an organization staffed with Jane’s sycophants is salvageable (or if it is, she may not want to be the person to save it).

Thank you again for your help. It is not an exaggeration to say that your response and the reader comments helped my sister realize she was in an abusive situation. Even though I’m sure this is not the resolution everyone had hoped for, my sister is much happier now that she is free of Jane’s emotional tyranny.

{ 97 comments… read them below }

  1. Fenchurch*

    Glad that she has seen the light! Acknowledging the problem is always a major step towards solving it.

  2. themmases*

    I think this is a great update actually. It takes great strength of mind to enforce boundaries like that with not only the inappropriate person, but others who try to get involved. The OP’s sister should be proud of herself.

    It is too bad that OP’s sister feels she needs to move on from this job, but the important thing is that it is her choice. There is a world of difference between deciding you can’t or don’t want to fix a situation, and being or feeling forced out by it. All the best to OP’s sister as she moves onward and upward.

    1. JMegan*

      I was going to say the same – this sounds like a really great update. Your sister identified a problem, and took immediate action to correct it. She set and enforced appropriate boundaries with Jane. And Jane is no longer with the organization, AND your sister didn’t have to fire her! That sounds just about perfect to me.

      I hope her next job is a great one. Tell her there are internet strangers out there cheering her on!

    2. OhNo*

      Agreed! It sounds like the OP’s sister really took the situation in hand, and dealt with it admirably. There’s a lot to be said for the ability to set boundaries and maintain them, especially if you’re able to do it in a professional manner.

  3. DCGirl*

    Yowza. I think I saw my dearly departed mother-in-law in that link.

    Another board I post on talks about “magic words” as in “What are the magic words I can use to prevent X from flying off the handle?’ The reality is that there are no magic words. Some people are going to behave badly no matter what you do because that’s their default setting. The best you can do is not react to them and, in this case, manage them out.

    1. JMegan*

      That’s it exactly. You can’t control how Jane behaves, only how you react to her behaviour. Sounds like OP’s sister did that brilliantly.

    2. GreenTeaPot*

      I saw my mother in that link. Unfortunately, it took me decades to begin to understand how troubled she was. Jane has exhibited behavior She may have picked up from a family member. How very sad. But thankfully, the OP’s sister can now put it behind her.

      1. AMG*

        I saw my MIL too. I went to marriage counseling by myself to get a handle on it. At one point my husband said, ‘I’m between a rock and a hard place’ about the whole drama. I told him, ‘well, I guess you had better get t of the way. I suggest you decide who you are married to.’ 10 years later, MIL has boundaries and is very pleasant now that she knows she cannot Pull That Crap with me. She is welcome in m home if she is willing to have boundaries, so she opts to not come visit, which is fine too.

        People like this have a way of finding new victims to hold emotionally hostage, but the good news is that it isn’t your sister.

        1. Marketing Girl*

          This may be a bit off topic, but any suggestions on how to build those boundaries? I’m in the process of doing that with my own mother now, but I have the child’s guilt that goes with it.

          1. GreenTeaPot*

            Sometimes it takes going “no contact.” I stopped spending holidays with my mother, sad as that may sound. Trouble seemed to erupt at family holiday events.

            When I did see her, I’d leave whenever she acted up. That and age seemed to mellow her.

            1. Marketing Girl*

              Thanks for the reply. Yes, that is what my feeling really is right now. I’m “limited contact” right now and try to stay non-emotional when we do interact. I’m hoping after my wedding this fall she mellows out a bit…but…that’s just hoping. She’s gone to a new level since my engagement last summer and that’s when I found CA’s blog and realized I needed to limit my contact and not over-give to her.

              1. PurpleNovember*

                If you’re not already, you might look in on Reddit’s RaisedByNarcissists board– lots of venting, but also lots of how-do-I conversations, and the mods are very, very firm about not putting up with trolls.

          2. NotASalesperson*

            Captainawkward.com is a good blog – there’s a lot of resources there for dealing with difficult parental units.

            1. Marketing Girl*

              Thanks – I actually started reading CA after I got engaged last summer and mom REALLY started her Alice behaviors. It really helps to know I’m not the “Wrong” one.

          3. 42*

            I read a wonderful book that spoke right to me when I needed it, and helped tremendously – link in next reply.

          4. Stardust*

            Also, another really helpful resource is a book called, “Safe People: How to find relationships that are good for you and avoid those that aren’t” by Dr Henry Cloud and Dr Townsend. I cannot recommend this book enough!

        2. Mephyle*

          Carolyn Hax is also very good for giving specific examples and wording for drawing boundaries and protecting yourself and your own, and also on taking inventory to decide what you can and can’t live with.

      2. Marketing Girl*

        My mother too. It has taken me far too long too, and I’m just how starting to figure out how to build some boundaries. Reading Captain Awkward has helped a lot for me to recognize my mom’s bad behaviors too.

    3. TootsNYC*

      There is tremendous power in embracing the concept, “That’s just the way she is.”

        1. Rana*

          Well, properly done, it’s freeing rather than harmful. Instead of taking Dysfunctional’s behavior personally, as something you can or should control by altering your own behavior, you realize that no matter what you do they will behave badly, so why not just do what you would like to do, and not worry about their reaction.

          Obviously this doesn’t mean excusing that behavior, but rather acknowledging that this person is broken in ways that cannot easily be fixed, and altering your own behavior accordingly. Instead of being seen as someone to be placated, or their behavior as something to gloss over, they become correctly seen as someone damaging who should be avoided and their targets as people to be protected and supported instead of shamed for “causing” Dysfunctional’s behavior.

          1. Elsajeni*

            Right — you often hear people say “Well, that’s just the way he/she is” as an excuse, as if it’s followed by an unspoken “… so we’ve just got to put up with it.” That’s no good. The trick is re-training yourself to instead follow it with “… so I’m not going to devote any more energy to fixing him/her or finding the perfect phrase that will make him/her not be That Way.”

  4. neverjaunty*

    It is really, really weird how so many people latch on to the Janes of the world to give themselves a secondary sense of power.

    Glad things are working out so well for your sister, OP!

    1. fposte*

      They’re often very magnetic, I think; they tell lively stories, they’re fun to be with, etc. There is a big class of people who are delightful until they are expected to do anything.

      1. Artemesia*

        I never really thought of it that way before, but that sums up many of the personality disordered people I have known. They were often charismatic and charming until held accountable.

      2. Anonymous for this comment*

        Very true. I have a disowned relative who is, allegedly, a wonderful and endlessly interesting person to be friends with.

        They really can be great as acquaintances. They tell fascinating stories about their adventures* and achievements*, they do exciting things*, they love entertaining, and they seem generous and caring.

        *made up

      3. neverjaunty*

        Sometimes, but with a lot of these people, they don’t hide their nastiness; they just seem to collect cliques of people who are overjoyed to be on the sidelines, fervently cheering on their bad behavior.

      4. Seianus*

        When you grow up you learn to recognize such people from miles away and, well, stay miles away if possible. Unless you happened to never run into them before.

    2. Temperance*

      I think a lot of it is that the Janes out there have extremes – so while she was totally off the rails with LW’s sister, she was probably really exciting, fun, and close with the rest of the staff. So then when she complained about alleged ill treatment to her coworkers, they just assumed she couldn’t possibly lie.

      1. Stranger than fiction*

        This was the bummer part of the story for me. While mostly great outcome overall and awesome boundary setting, I hope the sister was able to do some damage control with the Jane followers too. But I’m the type that hates the idea of people thinking the wrong things about me, maybe the sister was able to shrug it off since she’s leaving.

  5. AuditNinja*

    OP, I’m hoping you can share how exactly your sister addressed this issue: “When other employees would complain about my sister’s treatment of Jane (really, Jane has something of a cult leader personality and had a lot of influence over trainees), my sister handled the situation professionally and matter-of-factly.”

    In my past experience, I have trouble explaining to others how and why setting boundaries with people is healthy, necessary, and not “mean”…without it morphing into a he said/she said kind of situation.

    1. fposte*

      I would say that in a work situation you don’t necessarily want to get into an explanation, though; what you do is to model boundaries by limiting what you’ll explain (“It’s not appropriate for me to discuss individual employees”) and describing your reasonable expectations for everybody (“We expect everybody to treat people here with respect and to behave professionally, and I hope I can count on you for that”).

      1. The Cosmic Avenger*

        A common tactic with narcissists is to put others on the defensive. They often get family members in “JADE” mode; Justify, Argue, Defend, Explain. A common tactic to deal with that is to remember that, as others have said, the goal isn’t for the person to be right, it’s just to keep the attention focused on them at any cost. This is why I often remind people that “No” is a complete sentence. (Or, less succinctly, “no thank you”. :) )

    2. LBK*

      I think the key in those situations is not getting hung up on setting the record straight. Rather than trying to convince people that Jane’s account of a situation is inaccurate, you just disengage from discussing your relationship with Jane at all. It’s the same as trying to convince Jane herself that she’s not reading a situation correctly – to borrow phrasing from one of the commenters on the original post, this is a trap, because Jane (and her followers) will never, ever be convinced that they’re wrong.

      As a natural born arguer, I know how frustrating this can be because it feels like giving up or conceding to Jane’s perception, almost somehow implying that she’s right by not fighting back. But Jane’s goal isn’t to be right, it’s to steal as much of your attention and empathy as she can, and she’ll dream up an infinite amount of bizarre interpretations of your actions as long as you keep supplying her with the emotional energy she’s craving. The only way to win in this situation is to cut her off at the source and to tell any surrogates trying to ferry your energy back to her that you’d prefer to stick to work-related topics and then moving on.

      1. Liana*

        As a natural arguer myself, I feel you. I’m one of those people that LOVES to get the last word in, and it’s been an ongoing process for about 3-4 years to work that tendency out of my system. It’s really hard to do (both in online and in-person arguments)!

        1. LBK*

          Online arguments are the WORST. I’ve had to take a couple breaks from another site I visit because I’ll end up on my phone until 2AM arguing in comments with people when I need to be up for work at 7.

          1. Shell*

            Yes, this. And every time this happens, it makes me feel worse, not better. I mostly lurk online now. It’s not worth the energy.

          2. Liana*

            Oh man I feel you. There are a few social justice-related issues that are my Hot Buttons and every time I see someone on Facebook (a friend or friendly acquaintance; I try not to read random comments on news articles, for example) who posts something I disagree with and ESPECIALLY if I feel like I have irrefutable evidence that points to the contrary I will argue that point into the ground. On a logical level I understand that no one is changing anyone else’s mind, but on an emotional level I am convinced that if I find the right combination of words I can make a difference.

            1. Honeybee*

              With social justice-related stuff, I give myself one post, maybe two, before bowing out. I need to balance my emotional health with my real desire and personal need to put that information out there, because I’m in a couple of marginalized groups and I like to educate when possible. That said, there’s usually a two-fold goal: Maybe the person I am responding to directly won’t have their mind changed – but a lurker who’s more on the fence but isn’t saying anything might. Or someone who stumbles on the discussion in an Internet search 6 months later might. Or the person in question might not change their mind today, but 3 years later when they’re having their epiphany they might think back to the conversation and it might make a difference.

              That’s why I’ve changed my goal from “changing the other person’s mind and showing them how wrong they are” to “sharing my perspective and making my take on things clear.” Having the latter goal is so much more emotionally healthy for me, because it doesn’t have me striving for something that’s impossible. Also, in a conversation that has the potential to really drain/upset me, it keeps my focus on me and how I’m feeling rather than on trying to educate other people. It gives me the internal permission to disengage and walk away if I don’t feel like talking about it – or to avoid such conversations altogether.

        2. Chalupa Batman*

          So true. Acknowledging that I had a non-productive need to be right was kind of painful, but also freeing. Learning to say “well that’s your opinion” without a trace of smugness was so worth it. I find that I’m a better listener, and a kinder person because I judge less (which was an active goal). Another unexpected result: I’m kinder to myself. I put so much stock in being right that I took it personally when I was wrong. When I don’t feel that need so intensely for the silly things, I don’t have a dog in the fight and can just let it go. Then when I’m wrong about something more important, I’ve “practiced” being ok with that and moving on. Not feeding the trolls is still a struggle sometimes, though! They don’t call it baiting for nothing. But like Shell said, it never ends with me feeling good about it, so why use my precious emotional energy on it?

          1. LBK*

            Love this comment, especially the part about the internal emotional benefits of not always having to be right.

          2. Tea*

            This is a really great comment that hits a little too close to home. The tendency you described is also something that I’d like to work on in myself– a “non-productive need to be right” sums it up exactly. Emphasis on the non-productive.

          3. Honeybee*

            Yes, this is the way I felt too once I finally mostly worked this out of my system. I’m less hard on myself, and I am a MUCH better listener because instead of listening for the flaws in someone else’s argument so I can ATTACK!, I’m actually listening to them. And it helps me empathize more and see the other person’s argument more often. Incidentally, I’ve found this actually makes people trust me more. I’ve been astonished to see how people react to”I don’t know; I thought this was X but maybe it’s Y like you said” goes when I genuinely mean it.

        3. Honeybee*

          YES. I’m the same. I’m naturally an arguer, I love to be right, and I hate it when I think know I’m right and other people think I’m wrong. It was really, really difficult for me to learn that often it’s best to let it go, not get the last word in, and let people believe what they want – but it was so, so worth it. It has decreased my stress levels so much and made me a much happier and pleasant person to be around. (In addition, I have found that I am not often as right as I think I am. Mostly. But not always. Mwahaha.)

      2. TootsNYC*

        “But Jane’s goal isn’t to be right, it’s to steal as much of your attention and empathy as she can, ”

        This is so important to remember.

        Also, important to remember is what your goal is. Your goal shouldn’t be to change people or to be right; it should be to protect your energy and your time.
        It’s like with telemarketers: You don’t want them to interrupt your life. So get off the phone as fast as you can, don’t hang around scolding them or messing with them. Hang up.

      3. the gold digger*

        Wow. This is such a useful insight for me. It is super important for me to convince people I am right – but man I do not want to be Jane! I need to think about how I argue with people in this context. I have never heard it put that way before – that it’s really about the attention and not about being right. Oh dear. I have some work to do.

        1. LBK*

          To be clear, the “wanting to be right” person and Jane are two different people in my comment. I am also someone who always wants to be right and I’ll pour every bit of my energy into convincing someone that I’m right and they aren’t. The problem is that people like Jane cannot under any circumstances be convinced that you’re right – they are bottomless wells that you will never fill no matter how much you pour into them. Recognizing that with some people you just can’t be right frees you from wasting all that energy on them.

          If you recognize some element of Jane in yourself, too, then I’m happy to have inspired this insight. Just don’t want you thinking that wanting to be right in any way makes you like Jane – in fact, it’s the opposite, because the Janes of the world don’t care about the truth.

    3. Michele*

      I’m surprised that someone who lashes out at people can be more loved than feared.

  6. AuditNinja*

    Yes, exactly. I have this tendency to overexplain myself, which comes off badly. I’m working on it, however.

    Disengage…disengage….that’s my mantra :)

    1. fposte*

      It is really hard, especially if you’re inclined to be accommodating, to remember that you don’t have to answer a question, or that you can reject the premise of a question; it’s something that I still find it hard to do sometimes.

  7. Liana*

    I’ve been thinking about this post ever since it showed up on AAM. I’m really glad Jane ended up volunteering to resign – I’ve met/dated people like her before and their behavior only escalates. Good luck to your sister in regards to Jane’s friends in her workplace!

    Also – did your sister ever speak to her boss about Jane’s behavior? Or was Jane’s resignation framed as more of a mutual decision?

  8. AnAppleADay*

    Jane sounds nearly word-for-word like an ex-co-worker of mine. The “Janes” of the workplace often manipulate administrators into catering to the “Janes'” Mood Swings and Demands. Administrators fear the wrath of “Janes”. When my “Jane” stalked me on my lunch hour, pretty much the first thing she said when confronted by Administrators was “I’m NOT going listen to a lecture on BOUNDARIES!” before anyone even said anything about boundaries. So, yeah, they’ve heard it before and these “Janes” of the workplace DO KNOW what they are doing.

    OP, your sisters “Jane” knew she had lost the control the second your sister set a boundary. These Janes are ADDICTED to controlling the office dynamic. If they can’t control it and make it revolve around THEM, and tantrumming no longer works, yep – they quit! At least your sister Jane didn’t create a situation forcing the office CHOOSE between Jane and your sister.
    Best wishes to your sister. Healthier workplaces do exist.

    Managers and Administrators really need to grow a pair and nip this behavior in the bud. By catering to these Bullies/Narcissists/Cluster B Disordered folks, instead of holding them to the same standards of behavior you hold the rest of the office, you create a Monster. That Monster does NOT care about the work or business you do. They only care about controlling the office dynamic and being the center of attention.

    1. Stranger than fiction*

      Omg yes. They’re like a slow growing cancer. My bf has one at work now. For every complaint or performance issue on her, she turns around and files complaint of her own on the same or different person. She’s accused others of harassment, for example and even got a guy fired. No matter how much poor performance, she gets away with it because they’re so afraid she’ll sue them for the other alleged stuff. It’s like an endless game of tit for tat

    2. Honeybee*

      The thing that gets me is – they quit, but where on earth do they think they can go where this kind of behavior is acceptable or positive?

      I mean, I guess that there is always somewhere they can go where the manager doesn’t manage well and they are allowed to behave however they want. But what happens when people get wise or the manager gets replaced? Are these people constantly hopping from workplace to workplace, haughtily quitting once someone calls them on their shit?

  9. AW*

    Five bucks says that Jane was expecting your sister to back down when she announced her intention to resign.

    Please give her a high-five on my behalf. :)

  10. Observer*

    Your sister handled this very well, I think. I also think that she is right in looking for a new job. It’s not just that her reports all fell for Jane’s antics. That will resolve itself. But, the place doesn’t seem well managed. To drag out a resignation process for a year because they were so dependent on her is really poor management. They should have immediately moved into high gear to replace her. The fact that they didn’t or couldn’t doesn’t speak well of them.

  11. Stephanie (HR)*

    OP, I’m so glad your sister is getting out of that situation, that sounds just dreadful!

    In reading the advise from Captain Awkward, I have something to add that might help with the workplace (though hopefully your sister won’t need it anymore!).

    My boss taught me a tactic that has been very successful in separating the strategic hysterics from the true emotional moments (running crying to HR is a popular tactic when people want to get their way, but meanwhile, we’re happy to be a listening ear if someone is having a meltdown and needs a safe place for a moment). Offer tissues if there are actual tears or sniffling, and tell them they can take a moment to calm down/collect themselves, we’re willing to wait. Don’t do it coldly, but do it very calmly.

    Never have a visceral reaction to their display of emotion. Those who use it as a tactic usually dry up in an instant. The idea is that, once they realize tears aren’t going to move you, they stop using it and try a different approach. With someone who has had so much success with tears in the past, it may take some consistency.

    With those that come with an angry approach, I use a similar response, again, calm and not reactive. And if they persist, “I’m happy to talk to you about this when you’re calm. At the moment, you seem very upset, and I don’t think we’re getting anywhere. Do you want to take a walk and calm down, then come back and see me?” Or some version depending on the situation.

    The idea is to make it clear that, while you are empathetic to their plight, you are not going to respond to their emotional outburst/attempted guilt trip. I absolutely try to have empathy during these situations, but clearly respond to the events in question and not the emotion they are displaying.

    1. TootsNYC*

      Offer tissues if there are actual tears or sniffling, and tell them they can take a moment to calm down/collect themselves, we’re willing to wait. Don’t do it coldly, but do it very calmly.

      Never have a visceral reaction to their display of emotion. Those who use it as a tactic usually dry up in an instant.

      And the bonus is that those who are genuinely upset will be grateful for your calm and respectful treatment of them, and they’ll probably be able to calm themselves much more quickly. (Because, having been treated that way, I’ve come to believe that it IS a gesture of respect, to allow people the space and time to manage their own emotions, without worrying about your reaction to them.)

      Win – win!

      1. Anonymous for this comment*

        Yes! I learned this in training for… not a hotline, but a certain kind of response thing, and it completely changed how I thought of it. While I felt like I was just expressing myself and showing that I cared, really I was turning the tables: someone came to me for support, then I made them manage my reaction. Staying calm, like you said, respectfully lets people focus on the issue at hand.

    2. One of the Sarahs*

      My partner did this recently at work, and now the manipulative-crying-report doesn’t cry on her any more (and as a person who has really shitty crying reactions to stress, tied to a medical condition, I absolutely co-sign Toots NYC’s point that it helps people like me too)

  12. Temperance*

    As someone whose mother is a Jane (or an Alice), I am so impressed that your sister has handled this so well.

    I can also explain the issue with Jane’s minions. People like Jane generally pick one or two targets to attack, and go overboard with everyone else to manipulate them into agreeing. Jane sets herself up as the sad victim with the others, and she’s so darn NICE to them that they believe it. I mean, after all, you know Jane as the sweet person who will help you with mail merges, so how could ANYONE hate her? They’re good at love bombing and getting you to their side and black and white thinking.

  13. LisaD*

    Question: What should a manager do with a very *mild* version of this behavior to keep it from escalating? There’s one person on my team who projects cockiness to cover up a lot of deeper insecurity, and who tends to get her feelings hurt easily. Other people get distracted from their work to console her. Most recently she had a meltdown over her vegetarian lunch order being forgotten by the restaurant (which IS frustrating, and we’ve all been hangry before) but when she was offered the option of ordering something from another restaurant at company expense, she said “I’d rather just be mad,” and holed up alone in an empty office for the next few hours until I went down and cheered her up with a funny story and some sympathy.

    I don’t think the time to correct the behavior was when she was hurt and on the verge of tears, and I can relate to feeling left out because everyone else was happy with their company provided lunch and nobody took time to make sure she had food until she said something. But, I’d like to work with her on this now that the incident itself is a few days in the rearview mirror. She’s getting a reputation in the office as high-maintenance and someone who can’t take feedback. I don’t want this for her – when feedback is given directly and she has time to process it, she’s actually very good at handling it and changing for the future. But, people only see the incidents where she gets hurt or offended and everyone has to stop what they’re doing to console her.

    Every way I phrase this feedback in my head, it comes across as “Your feelings don’t matter and people don’t like you,” which is NOT what I want to tell her. But I do want her to know that her way of dealing with hurt feelings is affecting people’s desire to work with her.

    1. AMG*

      Address the behavior and not the feelings behind it? Maybe focus on not wanting other’s perception of her to be anything other than her awesome, professional self. If you told me, ‘I don’t want this for you’, I would feel supported and grateful. Also try ‘When you do X, the perception is Y’. Tell her that sometimes you have to put feelings aside and just deal with the facts and act on those only. Hope that helps. :)

      1. TootsNYC*

        I have had good luck with pointing out this dynamic–that their behavior hurts them by changing how people perceive them, and by the messages that it seems to be sending.

    2. Alli525*

      You know, I’m not so sure this is something you SHOULD address, unless holing herself up in that office meant she was not doing any work. I had a terrrrrrrrible day at work a couple months ago, where I could not talk to anyone all morning without bursting into tears… but instead of completely retreating, I just put my phone on Do Not Disturb and got all the paperwork and other tasks (where I didn’t have to talk to anyone to get them done) taken care of. Correcting emotional outbursts is so tricky, and really not something I see as my manager’s job unless it affects my work – and then I think addressing it in the moment is the way to handle it.

    3. TootsNYC*

      holed up alone in an empty office for the next few hours until I went down and cheered her up with a funny story and some sympathy.

      I think that this is the opposite of the approach I’d take. I thnk this rewarded her behavior and just taught her that it might take hours, but she gets to do this.

      I’d say, “I hope you’re feeling better–I need you to get back to work now.” And maybe, “I’ll give you another 10 minutes, and then I’ll expect to see you at your desk.” Calmly, not scoldingly in the least. But pleasantly expectant that she will be at her desk in 10 minutes.

      Because it’s just not reasonable for an adult to act this way.
      So, you will need to act like the reasonable adult.

      1. neverjaunty*

        Yes, this. Everybody dropping what they’re doing to console and cheer her up is rewarding behavior, and has nothing to do with whether the thing she’s being angry about is justified.

      2. LisaD*

        I’m just not big on giving a correction when someone isn’t in a state of mind to learn, unless it’s to the point where the appropriate correction is immediate termination. My general philosophy is that you should give feedback when someone is prepared to take it as valid and internalize it, especially critical feedback, and she definitely wasn’t. I would rather her feel like she’s in a supportive environment overall and take feedback about this at a later date seriously and be ready to learn from it.

        But exactly what you point out is why I do want to address this in the next 1:1 and not let it go long-term, I don’t want her to think that this is something she can repeat without consequences. We do allow people to move away from their desks to work if they need privacy/quiet, and I’m fine with her using that privilege for “don’t want to be around people” situations (her job is mostly solo work, day-to-day) but I need her to handle small emotional upsets in a way that doesn’t affect other employees’ mood or productivity.

        1. neverjaunty*

          But your choices are not ‘correct her when she’s mad’ or ‘everybody rush to coddle her’. If she wants to go be mad in an office for a while, why not just let her, instead of rushing in to jolly her out of it? Then when she’s calmer, you can sit her down and explain the problem. You seem to be making the mistake of thinking that if you calmly ignore her outbursts, you’re telling her “we hate you and you’re awful”.

          1. LisaD*

            In the moment, I was afraid that she’d gotten some kind of terrible news or something and needed to go home for the day – I didn’t know right away that it was just about lunch.

    4. Victoria, Please*

      Oh dear, “I’d rather just be mad” in response to a proffered solution and an apology would concern me a lot.*

      I agree with Alli525, maybe let it go THIS time, but the next time that the basic response is mad/crying when there’s a solvable problem, I do think you need to deal with it. I like AMG’s suggestions.

      1. LisaD*

        Unfortunately this isn’t the first time – the storming off and hiding is a new thing, but it isn’t unusual for her to stop others’ productivity for them to help her work through feeling disrespected or left out. She has a personal philosophy that feelings are better voiced than held in, which I initially supported because I felt it was her taking responsibility for working through her emotions in the way that is most effective for her, but over time it’s become clear that needing to have a conversation about her feelings isn’t a rare thing for her, it’s an at least once a week thing and it requires me and/or others in the office to stop what we’re doing and give her 100% focus while she works through something. She does actually work through it, and I don’t want to cut her off from this coping mechanism entirely, but I do think there are some things like “I’m annoyed that someone interrupted my meeting for a silly reason” that she needs to learn to shrug off or vent about with friends after work rather than stop her manager or team’s productivity because she wants someone to listen to her feelings about her meeting being interrupted.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Have you named the pattern for her and told her she needs to stop? What you’re describing is really disruptive to other employees, and I would bet money that some of them are really frustrated that you’re allowing it to continue.

    5. AcademiaNut*

      My reaction to “I’d rather just be mad” would be “Oh, okay.” Then I’d go about my business, and let them stew for as long as they wanted, as long as it wasn’t interfering with their work. No going in to cheer them up, no running out to buy a vegetarian meal to make them feel better, no fussing over them.

      With someone like this, what they really want is the attention, and the feeling of people running around desperately trying to please them. If you take away the reward, and leave them with their sulks, it’s a lot less fun for them.

      If you’re supervising them – you can take the lead in this. Don’t be one of the crowd running around trying to please her, and direct other people back to their work. If she’s sulking instead of working, matter-of-factly tell her that she needs to be working on X now, ignoring the sulking. If she hides in an office, maybe “Jane, I need you to come back to work.

      I suppose the kindergarten teacher approach “Jane needs some time to calm down – let’s get back to story time” would be hard to pull off.

      And the thing is – she *is* high maintenance. At random intervals she blows up over minor incidents, and sulks until other people exert themselves to make her feel better. She doesn’t do it every time, but enough that people notice and, quite likely, are trying to avoid her. And if she gets teary-eyed and sulks if she’s given feedback that isn’t carefully tailored to her mood, that’s high maintenance and annoying to deal with as well.

      I have a friend/colleague who is very good at his job, and most of the time a nice guy. But he’s easily annoyed by minor things, and lacks the ability to see other perspectives. So, occasionally, he’ll blow up at someone for what he sees as incompetence or stupidity (but is often simply something he personally disagrees with). He knows it’s a problem, but in his mind it’s other people’s problem for being stupid and incompetent. And yes, this has cost him professionally, because people don’t want to be the target of his next blowup.

  14. CoffeeLover*

    I bet she thought your sister would back peddle if she threatened to resign. Then she had no choice but to follow through, and now she’s losing her spot as queen B. At least I hope that’s what happened :D.

  15. Volunteer Enforcer*

    Brilliant. This also offers me some perspective – I don’t think I’m as bad as Jane but I’ve got to stop my mental health issues and feelings getting in the way of work and colleague relationships.

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