How to tackle adult temper tantrums?
Dear Dr Sadaqat Ali
I am having a hard time dealing with a colleague. He has a big heart and will do anything to help anyone. The problem is his temper. If something does not go his way or someone does not agree with him, he yells and does not care who hears him.
He is constantly getting people’s backs up. We all understand that he gets stressed easily, but we can't tolerate his tantrums and insults anymore. Individually we have tried to bring up the topic with him from time to time but nothing seems to work; he laughs it off or tells us that it was so and so’s own damn fault. Now things are so bad that the people in the office, even his friends try to avoid him.
Recently, he threw what I would call “an adult temper tantrum” after receiving his assignment. He threw down his reports and complained loudly and inappropriately. He also walked out before I was finished with the meeting—in front of others. Then he was in a very bad mood for the next three days. But I’m thinking I need to speak up now. I feel like a punching bag in front of him. Since he can be quite volatile, can you give me some advice? How can I get him to stop throwing a fit and work out a solution?
Yours sincerely, Punching Bag
Dear Punching Bag,
You’ve done a couple of things right already. You were wise to not confront him on the spot. You did not react when his emotions were strong. But, I have a strong dose of feedback for you. I don't want to offend you, but I need to challenge your righteousness. If he has been abusive for a long time, and you've done nothing concrete about it—then you were rewarding his behavior. If you and others were shying away from confronting him, then you've allowed him to bully you. And now you are sitting on a pity pot. Please stand up. You and your colleagues need to take responsibility for protecting your own boundaries.
I know, it is so easy to let things slide and lose perspective of what such a situation does to a work place environment. Trust me, you deserve a good work climate. Give it to yourself. You have two options. One is to turn this over to the boss. The other is to conduct an Office Intervention. Do it soon. Do it privately, not in front of a crowd. Do it at a time he agrees to.
The good news is that you have understood the fact that anger bouts have negative consequences. They can keep people on pins and needles for years. However, I don’t want to make it sound like once anger has been an issue, the relationships are tainted forever. I have an executive who has currently been making great strides in dealing with his anger by working with a coach. When spoken to by his colleagues, he apologized and promised to treat people with dignity and respect. He stopped his bad behavior. He has made a marvelous turnaround, but it is true that some people have trouble accepting his transformation. They assume that his efforts are merely part of a cover up. They still don’t feel safe. It will take time.
How to go about an office intervention? First, make up your mind that you will not "request" or "suggest". You will “assert.” You will set clear boundaries. You will state consequences. Here are some steps to follow: Meet with other colleagues. Help them see the role you have all been playing in encouraging these anger tantrums by allowing him to get away with them . Commit your colleagues to holding him accountable. Meet with him as a group so he does not minimize or rationalize his way out. Invite as few colleagues as possible but as many as necessary—perhaps two or three. Be sure to remain respectful, but be firm. You say, "I know this may seem kind of dramatic; but we need you to hear us. Our preference is to work it out between us. If we can't address it here, we will be meeting with the boss. You need to know that the three of us have found ourselves shaking in our rooms whenever we need to approach you. We feel sick and have a hard time sleeping after such anger episodes. Can we have your commitment to hear us out without interruption?" After he agrees, assure him that your intention is to address the problem and not to cause him pain or embarrassment. With that said, now it’s time to raise your concern. And this is the tricky part.
When we’re upset we describe behaviors in inflammatory ways. For example, you might say, “You were hostile and insulting when you got your assignment.” It will not work. Plan out how you’ll describe his behavior, and replace all the “hot words” with descriptive rather than judgmental language. For example, you can say, “After you read your assignment you said in a loud voice, ‘No way.’ You then put a stack of reports on the desk abruptly with a noise. And finally, you turned to me and said’ “Who the hell are you to tell me what to do?” Remember: Words carry more weight if you don’t hurl them. Let the words do their own work. If they are true, your colleague will hear them better without your added force. Share the consequences of his behaviour. Tell him why this doesn’t work for you. “First, it was done publicly. This encourages insubordination. Second, it was accusatory. That made it harder for me to respond in a supportive way.” Then you say, “We think this problem is solvable. We respect you and want to continue working with you, but not under such conditions. The problem is . . ." Now two other colleagues lay out facts. Share the specific incidents— not generalities— of his behavior and the effect on relationship. Others in the group should do it exactly like you.
Finally you come to the crux of the matter, "We don’t want you to yell or swear at us. We want you to take counseling for anger management. Assertiveness is a learnable skill with deliberate practice under a coach. If things improve, we would like to keep this between us. But if there is no genuine effort on your part, we will turn this over to the boss. We know that might sound like a threat but it isn't. We've allowed this to go on for so long. That's our fault, and you've gotten the wrong message that we think this is okay. It's not okay. It must stop." And then follow up. Hold your colleague accountable when he slips a little, as I did for my executive. And he used to respond, “I’m sorry; I’m trying my best but, I’m afraid I may have just stepped outside the boundaries.” Or, “I’m having difficulties between sharing an opinion and pushing too hard.” Eventually, time, apologies, reinterpretation of events, and the elimination of his “anger issues” did help heal old wounds. Help from a friend such as you, and anger management counseling will eventually put your colleague in good stead with others. Given that the person isn’t likely to become perfect anytime soon, minor infractions are signals that he is human.
Look for progress, not perfection. Don’t be discouraging by expecting and saying that he will soon revert to his old self. If you just focus on the infractions, you will think he is never going to change. Look at the changing pattern of incidents. It is evidence of progress rather than failure. If you do this, you will gradually see a changed person in action and feel proud of him.
Dr Sadaqat Ali
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Sadaqat Ali, a graduate from Dow Medical College, Karachi, is a recognized Addiction Psychiatrist with a background of training at Hazelden, Minnesota, USA and VitalSmarts. He is the Project Director of Easy Interventions & Willing Ways.