Workplace Wisdom

How to Handle Workplace Tantrums and Meltdowns

A manager in a creative industry wrote in to ask how she can deal with a colleague who regularly throws hissy fits, all of which follow a similar pattern.

The Hisser has a periodic and appropriate need for certain staff resources, but he never discusses them in advance. Then, when it’s late in the process, the Hisser dramatizes his needs with actual yelling and screaming, as if there will be truly horrible outcomes if he doesn’t get what he wants

If there were no emergency it would actually be unreasonable to try to fulfill such a last-minute request, but the Hisser’s drama amps up the level of risk and makes it feel like an emergency so the request gets fulfilled in an “all hands on deck” last-ditch effort.

Worse, once staff members are finally found and assigned, the Hisser petulantly announces that they’ve come to the project too late — so the newly assigned staff members are confused and uncomfortable and the staff providers feel abused and unappreciated.

The Tantrum Temptation

Why do some people need to throw tantrums? Usually it’s because they don’t have confidence that the organization will address their simple request sufficiently; they don’t believe that they’ll get what they need without beefing up the importance of their role or their need. And some people habitually “hiss” due to an excess of emotion that they don’t know how to regulate.

What’s amazing is how rarely senior managers who are aware of drama will move to quell it; in the case of someone like the Hisser, perhaps they think it’s a normal part of being “creative.”

Draining the Air Out of a Hisser

Some people develop such a strong habit of drama that they seem to need a periodic storm and recovery to be able to function. Channeling the frenzy may be the most productive thing to do, if it’s too difficult to teach them emotional self-regulation.

If this is the situation, then the Hisser’s manager or a friendly colleague might help him erupt in private so as not to disrupt other staff. Meanwhile, colleagues can compassionately reframe the situation as “just Hisser being a hisser” instead of tying themselves in knots.

Some tantrum-prone folks, though, use their fits, which only look like a loss of control, as a way of maintaining control — as a power tool for applying pressure to others who might not otherwise respond favorably.

If that’s the pattern, any organizational intervention should both sustain the person and constrain the behavior.

Sufficiently authoritative colleagues could hear out the Hisser’s needs, promise support, and actually detail a plan that shows they mean it. They might also plan monthly check-ins with the internal supplier to standardize the process, timeframe, and assignments that comprise an effective resource solution; this will demonstrate the importance the organization places on the Hisser’s work and should help to build his confidence.

Either way, the point should be made explicit that the fits are not the reason the Hisser get what he wants, and that he will get what he needs because it’s appropriate — or, conversely, that he doesn’t actually need what he wants, and that he’ll have to come to terms with that fact and find a new approach that is mutually acceptable.

Whenever a damaging, time- and resource-wasting behavior becomes a pattern, you can assume that it’s working for someone — even if it isn’t working for everyone. Figuring out alternatives to the tantrum-throwing should be the first step for the mop-up brigade.

Onward and upward,

LK

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