Workplace Etiquette: Losing Your Temper At Work

A_Black_and_White_Cartoon_Woman_Pulling_on_Her_Hair_In_Frustration_Royalty_Free_Clipart_Picture_110103-157001-1910531I lost my temper at a colleague during a meeting today, it was the first time since, I don’t even know when. I have had the occasional (private) teary outburst or pang of annoyance, and if we’re being honest, drawn out bouts of annoyance,… however an angry outburst really isn’t like me at all and the situation rattled me for the rest of the day.

So I thought I should turn this negative into a positive by reflecting on losing my temper at work, how to avoid it from happening next time and how I should have reacted instead.

How I lost my temper at work 
The situation is that I’m a contributor on a very frustrating project, that has been kicking about for over a year now without much progress, leaving the business quite exposed. A large part of this is due to the product area leading the project; the two men involved being product managers with very little project management experience (nor desire to acquire any). They’ve been essentially lumped with this project as it is a compliance piece that relates solely to their product portfolio. All of the other contributors have tried numerous times to assist them with coordinating pre-implementation activities, however they lose interest, abandoning the agreed time frames at any sign of difficulty. It had gotten to the point of significant hand-holding, in an attempt to coordinate some outcomes from the area that was meant to be leading us.

So alas, I was sitting in this meeting with about 6 other stakeholder representatives discussing the bare minimum requirements that needed to be addressed before implementation could occur, when one of the men from this business area (who happens to be a friend of mine, mind you) begins accusing the group for ‘holding the project back‘ and ‘not doing what they were told’ and ‘time wasting on non-essential elements’. To him, non-essential elements included having communications signed off by legal, a database specced and built, undertaking consultation with the party who would be impacted, basically, everything that was required to support project implementation, flying in the face of any planning and risk management principles.

I couldn’t quite fathom the ignorance of these statements, saw red and rebutted him quite vigorously. To which he turned to me and retorted ‘If you care so much, why don’t you do it all then?‘.  I couldn’t quite believe this and angrily replied ‘Are you suggesting that anybody who cares about the success of this project has to do your job?!‘ What continued was quite the heated exchange and I began to feel the other 6 pairs of eyes in the room locking on us.  As I took a sip from my coffee cup, I could see my hand visibly shaking.

keep-calm-and-breathe-deeply-30Luckily somebody else chimed in and diffused the situation. It took me quite a while after the meeting for the adrenalin to fade and then a somewhat irrational guilt began to set in. I stood by my points, but I berated myself more than anything, for losing control physiologically. I also felt slightly conflicted because I usually have a friendly relationship (outside of the project) with the person I lost my temper at. I later asked one of the meeting participants if I had been out of line. He replied that he understood where I was coming from, and had he been a few years younger, he would have reacted the same way. Uh oh. That’s never a good sign.

How I could avoid losing my temper next time 
As I mentioned, this type of reaction at work is well out of character for me. But at least now that I know that I am capable of it, I can mitigate the chance of it ever happening again.

  1. Exercising self awareness: First of all, I can be more mindful of when I’m about to be in a tense situation, as my downfall was the fact that I wasn’t in the mindset to catch and diffuse my anger. I now realise that I’m much more likely to lose my temper at somebody who I am friends with at work, as there is a personal element to the professional setting. The familiarity makes it much easier to be honest to that person, compared to when dealing with somebody I have a purely professional relationship with.
  2. Considering the environment: I realise now that I was seated directly facing this person across a narrow table, therefore he was the only person in my direct line of sight. Had I been sitting at the end of the table, I would have had better perspective with regard to the others in the room, rather than zeroing in on the source of my frustrations.
  3. Engaging a support person: Next time, If I see the signs that it could be an extremely controversial meeting, I could ask somebody I trust who is also a participant to act as a spotter and intervene in the event that I’m getting too worked up. Of course I wouldn’t do this on a business as usual basis, but only in exceptional circumstances, after all, I don’t want to be known as that anger management career girl.
  4. Utilising anger management techniques: Remembering and utilising anger management/delay techniques such as breathing and counting,…breathing and counting. Or promising myself to take 3 sips of tea before I respond to any point. Or writing every one of my points down in order to have some cooling off time before speaking.

How I should have handled it c032d7a6e2dee50a1386e6f803f3f755
Thankfully, I wasn’t rude, I didn’t yell and I still believed in what I had said after the anger had dissipated.

However, I should have coolly and calmly rebutted his points. Even better, I should have sweetly asked him a series of seemingly innocent questions in order to lead him to the conclusion that I wanted him to arrive at.

I learned this from a GM at a previous workplace who had developed quite the poker face having attended many mediation conferences. Regardless of the fact that I still stand by my points, they would have been much more effective had I not clearly lost my cool. Although I do think there is a time and place to display passion at work, it must be controlled.

If need be, I should have then escalated the matter in writing to his Manager and their group Risk & Planning Manager, who I’m on good terms with. This is exactly what I did later on in the day, but of course, I couldn’t reverse my initial reaction which still played on my mind.

I’m still not sure whether I’ll apologise, as the source of my regret is rather at my own physiological reaction rather than how I actually treated this person…is this a poor excuse? Perhaps. Hey, I never said I was perfect! This may make for some awkward elevator rides, we’ll just have to see how that goes.

That Career Girl

For more workplace etiquette posts, check out this section of my blog.

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  1. Thank you for sharing this. I think you’ve learned a lot of important lessons from this experience, and your sharing the love 🙂 Keep us updated on the situation 🙂

    I actually wanted to ask you about swearing in your workplace. Is it ever acceptable? I’m just asking because last week one of my co-workers said to me, “You can go suck on the big bag of d*cks I’ll bring in for you on Monday,” when I told him he might be asked to help us with exam invigilation. I did report him because I thought it was unacceptable, but management never does anything. How do you think you would deal with a situation like that?

    1. I think a casual curse here and there, in a friendly way, wouldn’t raise my eyebrows. But what your co-worker said was out of line. Has he acted this way before? Does he perhaps think that you two are close and he’s joking with you? I think you should definitely say to him that you don’t think it’s appropriate (i.e. put him on notice) and then make a note of the conversation, with the time and date.

      I’m sorry to hear that management didn’t act on your report. Did you report it to HR or your Manager? I’m aware of a situation at work where an employee berated another employee in the middle of the open plan office. She reported it to her Manager who did nothing, so luckily another employee reported the incident to HR. Both the offending employee and the Manager who failed to act in response to the complaint, were both investigated.

  2. What a great post! Thank you for sharing your insight about this. I sometimes wonder how I should handle my temper at work, specifically with clients (though, luckily, I communicate mostly with clients via email and I have a bit of time to process my reaction before I respond). Your points are very well made and I will be using them in the future!

  3. This is an interesting topic. Recently I’ve come to believe that anger is actually a really positive thing and that when we’re angry, there’s a reason we’re angry…and we should express that. And, while I was reading your article, I kept thinking about two things: firstly, you didn’t yell at this person and you seemed to be expressing a popular frustration. I wonder if anyone else had as much of a negative reaction to this as you did? Because, let’s face it, we’re all our own biggest critics. Who knows, maybe you won some people over that day. Secondly, I found it telling (of the kinds of pressure women are under in the corporate world) that you wish you had sweetly led him to come to the conclusion that he is incompetent at his job. Why is it your job to make him feel better about his own laziness? There’s something to be said for diplomacy but there is also something to be said for honesty, no? I thought this was a great piece, thanks for sharing!

    Flux: Encountering Adulthood

    1. Thanks for the interesting observations :). Yes, there is a huge element of me being my own worst critic and I don’t think it was perceived as negatively as I felt about it.

  4. Great article – your openness about what happened and your ability to be objective about it is wonderful.
    Please don’t be disheartened by the comment from your colleague about “had he been a few years younger…” I suspect that he has perhaps learned/decided not to say anything at all in those situations which isn’t constructive either. I suspect you said something that many others were thinking but were too self-conscious to say themselves.
    Your point about self-awareness is excellent. You can also extend that to think about what it was, specifically, that pushed your buttons. Was it the continued lack of action, was it the unfairness of his response directly to you, was it that he labelled these other activities “non-essential”?
    If you can pin point what it was that triggered your response, you’ll have a great insight in to what’s really important to you at work (reliability, fairness, transparency, results etc.). You’ll also know that when you’re in situations where those important things are not respected, it’ll make you mad. Knowing your triggers makes it much easier to anticipate when they may occur and to put your other strategies in to action too.
    Good luck with the project!

    1. Thanks so much Stephanie, thought provoking comments like these are why I love blogging. I definitely agree that understanding one’s triggers and finding insight into yourself is so key in work (and all aspects of life) and will improve emotional (and mental!) health down the track. ALL those things you mentioned are definitely very important to me. Thank you again 🙂

  5. I think that your coworker was far out of line by directing negative comments towards the project team. He definitely should not have done that. Sometimes we take things personally, especially given you were frustrated with this project and were trying to move it along. I’m just guessing here, but I think your coworker saying “Why don’t you do it all then?”, was an envious way of stating that he thinks you actually could do it all. I’ve noticed when people are insecure the only way they can make it look like they actually know what they are doing is to show off by criticizing (redirection of attention), exactly the way your colleague did in this situation. I don’t know whether his criticisms were valid or not, but his delivery was completely wrong and is typical of someone on a power trip and you aren’t the only one who noticed it.

    We are human. I remember one day I actually told my manager off (and swore), then later cried in the bathroom out of pure frustration. I later apologized to this manager, but calmly told him he should have been more conscious about what my coworker was doing (literally trying to take over a project I was tasked with without my consent). Luckily another manager stepped in and told off the coworker, and I expressed my regret to this manager for having lost my cool. I would imagine that you probably reflected on your behavior much more than your coworker and have learned more from what happened than he has, so good on you. As you said sometimes you have to choose your fights but obviously you thought this one was worth it.

    1. Thank you for the thoughtful comment. How was the relationship between you and the Manager you lost your temper at? I am now on speaking/pretty friendly terms with this person again although I am still keeping my distance.

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