We’ve all experienced that embarrassing, queasy, just-on-the-edge-of-fear feeling when someone at work throws a temper tantrum. Tantrums are usually associated with toddlers, not adults, because they involve reactions that are “disproportionate to the circumstances,” according to the Cleveland Clinic, and are specifically a result of wanting or needing something that the child can’t express with words.
Whether they tend toward screaming, flailing, or going limp, most children outgrow their tantrums. But some kids learn that their parents, and eventually other people, will give them what they want — or at least, get out of their way — if they express frustration or anger as a hissy fit or a meltdown rather than doing the hard work of processing their own feelings and negotiating for what they want. Although it can be very unpleasant work, you may be able to help your out-of-sorts colleague learn to use more appropriate, productive responses.
Some People Vent Big and Then Move On
Some people don’t know how to manage situations in which they’re seriously dissatisfied or don’t approve of what’s going on. For example, leaders who don’t want to seem difficult or mean may not mention the things that frustrate them. In a kind of magical thinking, they hope that people will come around to their point of view without intervention. But since that rarely happens, if there’s no improvement in the situation or relationship, they blow up.
They may unload just enough to relieve their frustration, and then they’re done. But even if they don’t bear a grudge or exhibit ongoing tension and distress, it can be unnerving to see someone let loose like that — and if it keeps happening, it may encourage others to behave badly as well. When a leader is otherwise well liked and their tantrums are a rare occurrence, the situation often gets met with statements of understanding, like, “Oh, that’s just what happens when she’s been under pressure for too long.”
If you become aware of a leader’s sources of annoyance or notice that they seem to be building up steam, check in to ask what’s going on with them. Try to offer options about outcomes or conditions that they might prefer rather than the current reality. Probing the situation can often help them figure out how to express what it is that they actually want — and then you can work toward that direction.
Others Repeatedly — and Predictably — Throw Tantrums
There are people, though, who use tantrums as a reliable technique so that others will feel uncomfortable, off-balance, or guilty enough about a situation that they give in to the tantrum thrower’s preferences or demands without even realizing they’re doing it. The tantrum becomes a code for expressing dissatisfaction and disappointment, and it’s up to the audience to figure out what to change so that they don’t have to be subject to any more meltdowns.
Tantrums can be a very effective tactic as a form of control or manipulation because most people don’t want to think of themselves as the source of such great upset. But not every tantrum is loud or emotional. People who have a tantrum habit are as likely to mention or announce their dissatisfaction and then withdraw as they are to have a big hissy fit. Their retreating or sulking suggests that they’re too wounded to even talk to anyone, that the injury is so significant that they must restore themselves before they can reengage. You may have experienced this behavior as “getting the cold shoulder” or silent treatment.
How Can You Cope with Other People’s Tantrums?
Unfortunately, although recognizing this behavior may help colleagues tip each other off to what’s happening, it doesn’t do anything to modify it.
The first line of defense is to keep very calm so you can assess the situation.* If it’s possible to engage in conversation, be sure to acknowledge right away that the person is upset, and if possible, name the source of the upset to get confirmation about what’s going on: “You certainly seem angry. I understand that you’re very frustrated by the way your top customer was treated.”
Consider whether it’s useful to make an offer of help, with conditions for appropriate behavior. “I’d like to see what we can do to rectify the situation. Do you feel you’re calm enough to work with me on it?” If your colleague responds well, you can continue the conversation. But if they can’t get a grip, the best thing is to excuse yourself and tell that you’ll be happy to work with them later when they’re calmer and ready to discuss the situation.
Later, when the person seems to be back on an even keel or has returned to regular dialogue, explain the most productive ways to work together: “I always want to know when we have a service problem. I’m most able to help, though, when we can have a reasonable discussion so I can easily understand what’s going on. When you’re calm and willing to communicate, we can have a productive conversation and make better judgments about what to do next.” If you’re acting in a leadership capacity, specify which behaviors are counterproductive or unacceptable. Flag the fact that the blowup or withdrawal behavior is not collaborative, and actually creates more problems than it solves.
It’s Not About You
Whatever your role, it’s particularly important not to take anyone’s tantrum personally. Remember that a tantrum is merely a sign that the person does not know how to self-manage or get the result they want, and it is not inherently about you or your own behavior.
*Note: If there are ever threats of violence or an escalation to violence, please seek safety and use whatever your organizational protocols are as appropriate — from notifying Human Resources to calling the police.
For more than 25 years as president of Liz Kislik Associates, a nationally acclaimed management consultancy, Liz Kislik has focused on advancing business results for her clients, such as American Express, Orvis, The Girl Scouts, Guthy-Renker, Staples, and Highlights for Children.
In her practice, Liz assesses and facilitates teams and… View full profile ›