There was a heartbreaking moment at a recent webinar where I was co-presenting.
One leader told the group about how the changing and ambiguous future was affecting her team. Specifically, someone was angry with every decision and every step forward. Really angry.
Her voice cracked when she said people in her organization were starting rants at her with “How dare you….” She heard this from folks who thought she wasn’t doing enough and others who thought she was doing too much.
It sounded rough.
She wrapped up her comments by saying that she would be stepping away from her leadership role soon.
She was invested in the organization and committed to her folks, but it was not going well. It was going very badly.
So what can we do when teammates are furious about leadership decisions or organizational changes?
It’s easy to say “don’t take it personally” or “they’re going through a tough time,” but those statements are equally useless as telling the upset person “calm down.”
It can feel personal, and it can be a swift slide from “this person is angry about a decision” to “I’m a terrible leader” landing at “I’m a bad person.”
Instead, let’s consider how to process and understand this situation as a leader so you can make a thoughtful plan for moving forward.
Dr. William Glasser gives us a helpful theory for understanding this behavior. His premise is that all people do is behave -- and all behavior is trying to meet one of five basic needs. Looking at behavior as separate from the person can help us distance from the situation and address changing behavior in the future.
Although many of the basic needs (love/belonging, freedom, fun, power, survival) could be driving this angry outburst situation, one sticks out as a likely candidate: survival.
In Glasser’s concept, survival is both the physical (food, shelter, etc.) and the psychological, such as open acceptance, predictability and freedom from threats.
If you’re leading in an unpredictable situation and teammates respond with rage, that may be a survival threat response - the “fight” part of “fight or flight.”
This is handy in that it tells you a few things:
Their rage is not your fault. (Really, it’s not your fault.)
If you know what need they are trying to meet, you can find better behavior to meet that need.
Here are ideas for a few paths forward from this point.
Our ragey teammate can learn to tolerate ambiguity better, so it feels less like a survival threat. Maybe they need resources or help with that.
As a leader, it may help to modify how or what we are communicating to be more clear about what is known and unknown -- perhaps compartmentalizing the ambiguity and emphasizing what is known and predictable.
Giving the teammate a way to direct their energy that creates less ambiguity could help them meet that need - for example if you identify that schedule unpredictability is a factor, how could this person be more involved in the scheduling process?
All of these paths forward start with curiosity. Building connection and rapport with an angry teammate can inspire avoidance, but it’s better to have those conversations so you understand their needs and what is the root of their anger. It’s also very advisable to be clear with your boundaries in that (and any similar) conversation.
By having an open and curious conversation with your teammate, you’ll likely discover even more ways for them to meet their needs in a way that supports themselves, your leadership and the team’s purpose.
Separate the person from their behavior, treat yourself with care, and have that curious conversation.
Got conflicts? Download the Emotionally Intelligent Conflict Management Checklist for a thoughtful approach.