Most contemporary workplaces—even those where employees are free to dress down and skateboard around the office—are high-stress and complex environments. As a result, no matter how “chill” the work environment may be, people are bound to lose their cool from time and time. Anger may arise when a worker doesn’t feel like their ideas are being taken seriously or when a worker feels excluded. At times, anger may be displaced—for example, a stressful situation at home may make a worker more agitated and easily angered on the job. Whatever the source, however, anger is never productive, and knowing how to de-escalate an angry employee or co-worker quickly and effectively is essential.
While much of the advice about how to de-escalate angry co-workers and employees is common sense, it is by no means always taken into account when anger surfaces in a meeting or on the office floor. Don’t wait till it’s too late; see Workplace Violence Prevention Made Simple
1. Call up your active listening skills. When someone is angry, listening—without interrupting or questioning—is the best thing you can do. Because your co-worker or employee is already on the defensive, ensure they feel heard (e.g., use verbal cues, like nodding, to make them feel heard without interrupting).
2. Acknowledge that they are angry or upset and validate their feelings. Don’t use the angry outburst as an opportunity to give a lecture on how damaging anger is in the workplace (broader discussions about anger and anger management are best kept for a post-incident follow-up discussion).
3. Try to find some basis upon which to agree with the angry co-worker or employee. Even if the source of their anger appears unfounded, look for the grain of truth in their claim and acknowledge it. This can go further than you might think in de-escalating the situation.
4. If you can, take responsibility. Anger in the workplace typically arises because someone either feels they have been dismissed or otherwise treated unfairly. Try to bear some of the weight for the perceived inequity, even if you are not the primary or only source of the problem.
5. Open yourself up to criticism. Let your co-worker or employee tell you what they think is going wrong. Even if you disagree while de-escalating an angry co-worker or employee, don’t necessarily defend yourself. You can do that later if need be.
6. Protect your angry co-worker or employee from overexposure. The reality is that when one is angry, they often say things they will live to regret, and in the workplace, the consequences can be grave. If you think your co-worker is going to go off the rails, intervene and bring them to a private space where they can let off steam in a lower-stakes environment than a meeting room or public corridor.
The best way to deal with anger in the workplace, of course, is to take steps to ensure it never becomes a problem in the first place. First, recognize that anger is never the only choice. If you have a co-worker or employee who consistently resorts to anger, intervene to help them foster less disruptive responses to stressful or confusing situations. Second, know how to respond when you are interacting with an angry individual. Anger can be contagious, so it is important to maintain clear boundaries. If you enter the other person’s angry state, you won’t be able to de-escalate the situation. Third, constantly self-assess your responses to anger in the workplace and find ways to avoid contributing to situations that may provoke angry reactions. For example, work to avoid criticism and foster positive reinforcement. Find ways to extract yourself from conflict. Finally, be on the look-out for warning signs (e.g., a talkative co-worker who suddenly becomes silent and fidgety in a meeting may be angry). If you notice a co-worker or employee becoming angry, initiate an opportunity for dialogue before their anger surfaces.