Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
Dear Crucial Skills,
I read your recent article on anger management. It captured well the consequences of even rare lapses into anger. However, it would be useful to also understand how a person who has had anger issues can deal with the past and move forward with their colleagues.
I have an employee who has had anger issues in the past. He is currently making great strides in dealing with the situation by working with a coach and thinking about how to better respond in crucial situations. I have seen strong progress in this regard. However, the article makes it sound like once anger has been an issue, the employee’s collegial relationships are tainted forever.
My employee has apologized where needed and many colleagues recognize his progress. How do I best advise this person in terms of the past situations? It is important that he has the confidence of his colleagues and confidence in himself.
In Support of Progress
Thanks for your insightful question. You’re right in worrying about the long-term effects of the occasional outburst. Random negative reinforcement can keep people on pins and needles for years. In one case, an executive we worked with made a marvelous turnaround, but people who worked with him had trouble accepting his transformation. He had been volatile and abrasive, but only occasionally. Nevertheless, people assumed that this volatile side reflected who he really was, and that his subsequent efforts to act calmly and professionally were merely part of a cover up. They kept waiting for his “true personality” to surface when once again they would fall prey to his abrasive ways. In short, people wouldn’t cut him any slack. Frankly, they didn’t want to cut him slack because they were angry at him for what he had done.
In this case, we learned that the executive needed to do what your employee did—he needed to apologize and let people know that he was doing his best to always treat people with dignity and respect. Next, he needed to stop his bad behavior completely. A single lapse keeps people nervous and twitchy for a long time to come. Suggesting that the employee you work with is “making progress” leads me to believe that he hasn’t been without incident, and that would be a problem. If he now has fewer explosive incidents than before, the random pattern merely lengthens as the events grow further apart, and this longer pattern will keep people in suspense for even longer. You can see the problem.
Given that the person isn’t likely to be perfect, help him help others see that minor infractions are signals that he is human, he’s working on the issue, and that he’s making progress, rather than that he will soon revert to his old self. Explain that the changing pattern of incidents is evidence of progress rather than failure. The behavior is not acceptable, but the employee is openly working to improve and needs feedback and support from the team. If you don’t do this, you might be watching the fellow in action and feeling proud that he’s trying hard and doing better while others simply view a minor infraction as further proof that the person is never going to change.
Finally, encourage your employee to apologize when he does slip a little, to explain what he’ll do differently next time (and by inference, why he won’t make the same mistake again), and to ask others for their continued feedback and support. For example, should he become a little too emotional he might say something such as, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to become so forceful. I care a lot about the issue and sometimes my passion for the topic comes off as being too pushy or abrupt. As you know, I’m trying my best to stay in healthy dialogue and I’m afraid I may have just stepped outside the boundaries.” Or, “Did I push too hard there? I feel like I was maybe too forceful. I need your honest feedback here. I’m trying my hardest to walk that line between having an opinion and pushing too hard.”
Eventually, time, apologies, reinterpretation of events, and the elimination of his “anger issues” will help heal old wounds. This, plus help from a friend such as you, will eventually put him in good stead with his colleagues.