Losing Your Temper at Work


Imagine the scenario…You’re under a lot of pressure to deliver a big project, you’ve had stress in your personal life, you’re behind on sleep, and someone on your team makes an error that puts the entire project at risk.

You know you’re supposed to take a moment to let your anger settle, and then initiate a proper damage control plan: assess the mistake and the situation, consider possible resources and solutions, and define the steps you and your team will take to resolve or mitigate the problem.

But instead, in an instant, your frustration overwhelms you and you yell—at the employee who made the error, other team members, and even a few innocent bystanders. Maybe you even swear and say insulting things. You retreat to your office and slam the door.

What have you done? What on earth do you do next?

To answer the first question: you’ve just thrown a grown-up temper tantrum. To answer the second: you now have to come up with two damage control plans—one for the derailing project, and one for your team’s perception of you and the hit on their morale.

Being the boss and losing your temper might have been tolerated in the workplace a few decades ago, but those days are long gone. It’s your job to cultivate a safe working environment based on mutual respect. Losing your temper in front of your team and hurling verbal abuse clearly runs counter to these objectives. Here’s an effective way to start repairing the damage.

The right approach to damage control

First, assess the situation. You’re human and anger is a normal emotion. Some people are more prone to losing their temper than others, but it can happen to anyone who is under enough stress. It’s certainly not ideal you lost your temper and expressed your anger in an inappropriate way, but the situation is still salvageable.

Now, what are your resources? Your main resource is your ability to take responsibility—in this case, for your anger. The sources of your stress may be beyond your control, but the way you handle it belongs to you. Fortunately, this leads us to another one of your core personal resources: your ability to solve problems and bring people together—traits that likely landed you a managerial role in the first place.

As for possible solutions, there’s really only one: you need to apologize unequivocally to everyone who was at the receiving end of your outburst—no excuses. You might acknowledge context: that the project is important, that the error caught you off-guard in a bad moment—but do not cast blame for the way you expressed your anger on anyone but yourself. The sooner you do this, the better, but make sure you feel ready so your apology can sound natural, sincere and calm.

It might feel embarrassing to apologize, but it’s a powerful antidote to the crisis generated when you lost your temper. Apologizing will demonstrate to your team that you’re a human who can make mistakes, take ownership of them, and commit to the hard work of rebuilding trust and respect.

It’s also important to speak to your own boss, so that they hear about the incident directly from you first. Again, no excuses, and go into the meeting equipped with clear ideas of how you are going to proceed, both in terms of how you plan to manage the situation with your staff, and how you’ll address the practical matters associated with your projects. If you have a good relationship with your boss, you might ask for advice and support.

Try an ounce of prevention

And finally, in private, you’ll need to revisit what happened and reflect on how you got to the point of losing your temper. We all need to take care of ourselves, but when you’re in a position of managing others, it’s even more critical because letting stress get the better of you in the workplace has farther reaching impacts – both professionally and personally.

No matter what the causes, you can take action to prevent it from happening again. Develop stress-relieving habits: try increasing your daily exercise, learning to meditate, or scheduling regular recreation time outside of work. If losing your temper made you aware of other powerful emotions, such as deep sadness or persistent anger—or if the whole episode caught you by surprise—there’s a good chance you’ll benefit from some private counselling to get support in developing better coping strategies. You owe it to yourself and your career to reduce your stress. Use your available resources to do so.

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