7/1/2002 | 5 MINUTE READ

How Not To Blow Your Top

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Your boss criticizes you unjustly.


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Your boss criticizes you unjustly. You overhear one of your people say something unflattering about you. Your secretary reneges on a promise to stay late to help you catch up on a big project. For one reason or another, you're deep down angry. What do you do?

When there is tension—real, deep down, punch-in-the-nose tension—in a work situation, everyone involved is particularly sensitive. Therefore, it is seldom fruitful to try to resolve the issue on the spot. The best strategy is to do what you can to defuse the situation until those involved can control their emotions.

It's not easy to calm down when your blood is boiling, but it can be done. Some suggestions:

Concede what you can. If the other person has some facts on his or her side, say so as quickly and completely as you can. This serves two ends. You take some of the steam out of the other person's anger, and you will be putting yourself in the best possible light. There is no need to solve the problem at this point. Simply recognizing its legitimacy can buy you time to work out the details.

Listen. A talked-out griper is easier to deal with than one who is bottling up emotions. Often, this is really all that is needed to end the whole thing.

Express your disagreement. If you feel that the other person is genuinely in the wrong, you should state your feelings in a controlled manner.

Set a date to discuss the matter more calmly. If agreement on this appears impossible, end the confrontation now by asserting that you will set up such an appointment later.

Take a walk, if necessary. Bad as this may look, it's better than saying something you will later regret.

Among tactics to avoid:

Don't laugh it off. Sometimes a joke can be a great tension breaker. But more often it simply heightens resentment. It's usually too great a risk to try unless you know the other person extremely well.

Don't interrupt, or try to out-shout the other person. While this is often tempting, it seldom serves any purpose other than to make you feel better for the moment and worse later.

Don't try to settle things while emotions are not fully controlled. Even if the situation demands that you do something at the moment, let it be clear to everyone that it is a stopgap measure.

These are only immediate measures. The issue will have to be faced later and thoroughly aired. But by defusing the situation for the moment, you buy time to think things out, examine the problem from the other person's viewpoint, and perhaps come up with a mutually acceptable solution or compromise.

The important thing to remember is that, in all likelihood, you will have to continue working with the other individual. Therefore, it becomes imperative that a solution with which you both can live be reached. And, above all, don't forget that with the passage of time, such run-ins do tend to fade from memory.


Three Ways to Motivate People

Give them recognition. Over and above monetary reward, what people crave is praise. They need assurance that their efforts are known, valued, appreciated. Sometimes all it takes to satisfy this deep desire is a sincere "well done", preferably delivered in front of their peers. Sometimes, something more tangible is required—a business trip that implies trust . . . inclusion of the individual's name on an honor roll . . . a letter of congratulations—anything that strokes their egos.

Make their work more interesting. It's a fact of life: familiarity does breed contempt. That's why one of the great demotivators is plain old boredom. To the degree that you can make people's work meaningful to them, to that degree you will spur them to realize their own highest potential. When people's work excites them, they come alive; they walk differently, talk differently, work differently.

If you want your people to do their job with dedication, help them enjoy what they're doing. This may require that you build more decision making into their work . . . more creativity . . . more variety . . . more challenge. But if you can help them make good use of their abilities, they will repay you with top performances.

Give them additional responsibility. This doesn't mean simply giving them more work. It means giving them work of greater importance that requires a higher level of knowledge and skill. It is job enrichment, not job enlargement that is the issue. The amount of additional responsibility will vary with the individual, of course, but if you haven't reconsidered in the last six months or so what your people are being asked to do, it may be time to reassess their workloads.


Dealing with the Poor Performer

One of the most difficult, but important, responsibilities a manager faces is dealing fairly and effectively with an employee whose performance is unsatisfactory. In these cases, you have basic obligations to both the employee and your company.

For many managers, it isn't easy to sit face-to-face with an employee and frankly discuss performance shortcomings. And it isn't always obvious what corrective action will put the employee on the path to improved performance. Some managers who want to avoid a confrontation may consider transferring an employee. Others may make a half-hearted effort to counsel the employee, hoping that performance will improve by itself over time.

These courses of action are almost never effective. They waste the company's human resources, risk the company's reputation, and harm the morale of other employees. They are also unfair to the individual involved.

If you see an employee struggling with the requirements of the job, don't wait until appraisal time to sit down and talk about it. Delay only aggravates the problem for all concerned. Identify the deficiency, have a counseling session, and work out a specific plan to improve performance. Your own manager, perhaps more experienced in handling this kind of problem, can provide help. But first, you have to step up to the problem.

When counseling and corrective action fail to produce sufficient improvement, you may have no alternative but to separate an employee from the company. It could be the kindest act for all concerned.