Losing Your Temper at Work: How to Survive It

Last Updated Dec 22, 2010 12:00 PM EST




The Scenario: It's been a lousy day. And a lousy quarter. You're reviewing a presentation by someone on your team. It's lousy, too. Monkeys throw this stuff at each other. You expect more from the people you work with. Your boss expects more of you. This effort puts you behind. And when you mention this, your direct report's reaction is little more than a blank stare. You freak. Just lose it. And when the dust settles, you've torn so many new orifices that the danishes in the conference room are now doughnuts. The problem: You went too far and you know it, and so do all the staffers within 100 yards (which, based on your outburst, would probably be the appropriate restraining order distance). Now HR is breathing down your neck and you've got a staff that's wary of working with you again.

One of the finest examples of a hopelessly lost temper in the workplace since Patton slapped an enlisted man happened in June 2007, when eBay’s then-CEO Meg Whitman allegedly chewed out and shoved an employee in a conference room. According to reports, the employee, Young Mi Kim, was prepping Whitman for an upcoming media interview (and must not have been doing a great job of it in Whitman’s eyes). It cost Whitman a bunch of bad press and eBay a reported six figure settlement, though Kim returned to her post.

Whitman may have been lucky because of her title. If it hadn’t been the CEO doing the screaming and shoving, it’s quite possible she could have been suspended or even fired for losing her cool so completely. You, in other words, may not be so fortunate.

Yes, work is high-pressure, especially these days. At all levels and all departments, companies need execution (though not necessarily via verbal guillotine). Sometimes people come up short and sometimes others respond badly to that. The question is: What can you do now that your words and bold acoustics are now not just a matter of public record but etched in the annals of water-cooler lore, as well as in the minds of your superiors? Your course of action depends on certain variables:

Variable #1: You’re normally a nice person.

If you have heretofore been a swell person to work with, your meltdown will stand out. “You could have been the most charming colleague for 20 years, but blow up on just one day and that’s all people will remember,” says Mark Jeffries, international management consultant and author of The Art of Business Seduction. “You can’t put lava back in the volcano.”

  • Your move: A public tantrum deserves a public apology, and you need to make it quickly so the gunpowder smell from your explosion doesn’t hang in the air for days. And people will respect that because the public apology is the hardest to deliver. “Blame yourself openly,” says Jeffries. “But also give them something that recalls the nice you, a shot of humor like ‘I’ve been watching way too much Hell’s Kitchen.’” After that, have an immediate sit-down with your boss and offer the same mea culpa.

    “If it’s an isolated incident, most organizations won’t go to termination on first offense,” says Dick Grote, human resources consultant and author of the forthcoming Harvard Business School book Performance Appraisals. If your boss does decide to discipline you via a suspension or probation, take your sentence and behave with class from then on. Don’t mention your wig-out again and people will move on from it. After all, everyone is entitled to one bad moment.

Variable #2: You’re normally an intense person.

Some very positive traits can lead to anger — intensity, a competitive nature, a strong drive for excellence. Rage can simply be a symptom of passion. If you’ve cultivated that reputation, you may get some latitude here.

“I get very loud, very passionate, and I have a very high standard for excellence,” says

Larry Winget, career/management guru and bestselling author of It’s Called Work for a Reason. “I’ve chewed out a lot of people in my time and I’ve done it the right way and the wrong way. What I’ve learned is you can be loud and passionate and have a standard of excellence and people will expect that from you because it’s part of your style. But that’s never an excuse for bad manners.”

Bad manners in this case would be making a public example out of a person while distracting from the legitimate story: We, as a team, need to perform better and get the job done.

  • Your move: Remember that intensity is okay, but crossing the line into abuse or personal attacks destroys your credibility as a person who wants the best performance from yourself, your colleagues, and the entire organization. “Anyone who loses control like that demonstrates to everyone around them that there is an element of their personality that they do not master,” says Jeffries. Again, the public apology is in order and make it fast.

    After that, march to your boss’s office and explain yourself. By now everyone who works with you knows your intensity level, but after an outburst like this your boss needs reassurance that crossing the line won’t become a habit. Re-emphasize that your motivations come from a need and expectation of excellence — bosses surely understand that.

    And here’s a test: If she decides to discipline you, how does that make you feel? If you know you have it coming and take it, you’re probably on solid psychological ground. But if you think it’s unfair and/or unwarranted? If it makes you angrier? Time to take a closer look at yourself. Is this a pattern — and a problem? If you notice a pattern of rage, don’t simply try to control it by counting to ten every time you get mad; instead, consider getting some counseling. Further outbursts like this will transform you from someone people want to please into someone people want to see fail.

Variable #3: They deserved it.

While most would argue that Meg Whitman crossed a line when she went roller derby on her underling, what no one knows is whether or not her gripe with the employee was legitimate. And therein lies an area as gray as battleship paint when it comes to losing your temper at work. “Let’s be honest,” says Winget. “Sometimes people deserve to be ripped new orifices.”

  • Your move: You need to see this person in private, says Winget. “Get humble quick. Admit you were wrong — not about the chewing out, but about the public nature of it. Go to the person and say “I shouldn’t have said what I said to you out there. But privately, you need to know I’m not happy.”

    From there, “move forward from getting mad about it to actually doing something productive and changing that person’s ability to do their job,” says Alison Doyle, a job search expert for About.com and author of Internet Your Way to a New Job. Did they have the resources they needed? What was lacking? Ask the person: What can I do to help you do your job better? The fact is he or she simply may not be up to the task. But that shouldn’t be your decision based on one bad day.

Variable #4: The company culture.

The overall tone of your workplace may well be high-tension, high-pressure, and governed by screamers. Jeffries, a former stock broker, has seen Type A management first-hand. But he points to the aforementioned TV show Hell’s Kitchen — where top chef Gordon Ramsay abuses chef wannabes — as a prime example of how this kind of corporate culture functions.

“I guarantee that it’s in Ramsay’s contract to call people donkeys, throw food, and toss people out of the kitchen,” Jeffries says. “But if you watch, an interesting thing happens. The contestants all start off meek and mild. By the end of it they’ve all started shouting at each other because Ramsay sets the tone.”

  • Your move: Measure the viciousness of your attack versus the usual employee flesh-tearing. “If everyone shouts, what have you got to apologize for? It’s expected,” says Jeffries. “However, if you break the norm, if you shock and surprise people, you must ask yourself, ‘Have I gone too far? Have I set a standard for myself that I’m not happy with?’”

    At that point it may not just be about an apology. Then it becomes about who you’re becoming. “The hotheads may be the most successful there because that’s the culture the leadership fosters,” says Doyle. “But for you, decide: Am I okay with a culture of fear or tension? Can I keep my sanity and stay in this work environment?”

One Last Thing to Think About

We become locked into the present moment very easily, especially when dealing with the immediacy of failed projects and bad tempers. Consequently, as Winget notes, we start to think, “I’m working with this a—hole; I can be an a—hole back and it won’t really matter.” But it always matters — which is why you need to think about the future. “In 10, 12, 15 years, that a—hole’s your boss,” says Winget. “I’ve watched this happen too many times and it’s happened to me. I lost a deal because of it. So watch your tongue and be forward-thinking.”

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