This morning, I went to a local chapter of SHRM - that’s the Society for Human Resource Management. I had the opportunity to brainstorm how to handle it when an employee responds “very emotionally” during performance reviews, with “very emotionally” explained as “anger, tears, shouting, etc.”
My small group had experience in all aspects of human resource management, so we pooled our best advice; here it is!
Give Performance Feedback Often
Assuming the performance feedback was given during a formal evaluation, the first thing to understand is that nothing in a formal evaluation should be a surprise. Ideally, we all work with supervisors who let us know how we’re doing frequently, and talk to us as soon as problems arise.
Typically, managers are people who were great workers and got promoted. As managers, they’re now in a totally new role - they’re responsible for how staff behave and whether they meet performance metrics. Yet too often, they haven’t been trained on how to do this! Sure, maybe there was a training for how to use your electronic performance review system - but not the soft skills of how to communicate about work behaviors or performance standards with the people they’re charged with overseeing.
Start the conversation with your manager here. Or if you are the manager, consider taking our Listen! How to Be a Better Manager course online, the self-paced version of a workshop we offer live to companies from 50-200 employees. Or, talk to your HR rep - helping managers manage people better is part of their job.
Keep the Feedback Balanced
Perhaps you’ve heard this one before: Provide evaluative feedback in a balanced way. “Here’s something you’re doing well, and here’s something that needs improving.” The philosophy is that when you focus entirely on the negative, ignoring the positive, you put your employee into a negative frame of mind. This can increase anger they may already feel, or, perhaps worse, it can make them feel hopeless - “Wow, all this negative feedback … can I do nothing right?” That’s the worst attitude to cultivate when you really want this employee to succeed!
Protip 1: Express gratitude for whatever they do well.
IF you can be genuine when you do it, don’t just say “you’re doing x well.” Say, “you’re doing x well and I’m really grateful for it. Here’s one concrete way it helps me.”
Protip 2: Be specific! Don’t just thank them for “helping out with that big project,” name exactly how they helped. Even if “helping” is a part of your expectations for their work.
When we share gratitude, or appreciation, with others, it fosters feelings of cooperation. Simply by saying “you helped me out by _ (getting that report in on time, sharing a joke, delivering for our client, etc.),” you get them in the frame of mind collaborate. So if a negative has to follow, they’re already thinking about working together - working with you to improve client relations, perhaps.
Everyone has emotions - we’re human! And while the dated stereotype of a worker without emotions still exists, today most of us have a better understanding that emotions cannot be ignored. In fact, we ignore our emotions to our own detriment - studies show that suppressing emotions (you know, squash it down and pretend you don’t feel that way!) increases stress levels, and we all know higher stress leads to negative physical health. And that leads to higher healthcare costs for everyone!
So why am I talking about defusing emotions?
Simple: When emotions are acknowledged, especially with an internal focus on compassion, we typically begin to feel better (less intense). The same underlying emotion may exist (such as anger), but the intensity lessens, and whoever has those emotions can start to process and work through them.
So how do you appropriately defuse this employee’s anger?
In the moment, there is one key action you can take to lower the temperature on anger - validate it. Validation here does not mean to let them know you think their anger is justified (whether or not you really believe that is beside the point).
Validation simply means expressing empathy, without becoming angry yourself. All you have to do is say, “I see you’re really feeling angry right now.” And then let there be silence for 30 seconds, or even as long as two minutes. Allow the employee the space and time to have your words register with them, and really feel that this strong emotion flooding through them is recognized. See how they react - they may open and share precisely why they’re angry, or why they didn’t meet the expected standard - without any more prompting from you.
Help the Employee Meet Expectations
There are several ways that you as a manager can help your employee to meet the standards set for them.
Review their performance standards, on your own. Do you think they’re written clearly? Are they even written down anywhere? Does the employee have a copy of them?
Review their performance standards, with them! Ask if the standard seems clear. Ask them to state the standards in their own words - if they say something that sounds totally off, you know you have to find a new way to communicate your expectation.
Be concrete, specific, and detailed. Even when you agree on a standard, sometimes the measurement of the standard is ambiguous. Do you want them to “increase outreach” or do you want them to “get a written MOU with at least 2 new partners in 2019”? The latter is one way you could measure the former. Make sure you both understand how the standards are measured.
Ask them how you can help! It can be easy to forget that the people we speak with - whether an employee, a client, or a loved one - are the experts in their own lives. You never know - you might assume that their problem is time management, and they may share that someone else is giving them assignments without your knowledge and that’s why important projects are delayed.
Sometimes, the most difficult part of managing people is managing your own emotional reactions to THEIR emotional reactions. This is a skill we cover in the course I mentioned above, Listen! How to Be a Better Manager. Learn more about my journey to create that course here.
This blog post was updated on 2/22/2021.