Jane Watson is the Head of People at Actionable.co and the influential voice behind Talent Vanguard, a must-read HR blog. With more than 15 years in the field, Jane brings curiosity, thoughtfulness, candor to modern people management.
Here, she tackles a manager’s dilemma for our HR advice column, Good Question. Have a question about your workplace? Submit it here.
I've been under a lot of pressure at work lately. My company has had to double our production to meet a large client order and I'm responsible for hiring and training all new recruits to meet our deadlines. The stress is starting to show.
Case in point: last week, a new hire, let’s call her Frances, forgot to submit an order form, which delayed an important shipment. In her two and a half months, she’s been one of our hardest working and most promising recruits, so I knew I should forgive her - but I lost it. I immediately started yelling at her in front of some newer trainees. I did not curse or insult her, but as soon as I finished, she ran to the bathroom to cry.
Since then, I’ve felt terrible. I’ve gone against our company and my own personal values by raising my voice to a subordinate. Worse, I’m afraid of the example I’ve shown for our other recruits.
What’s the best way to make amends and regain my team’s trust and respect?
Let me start by saying that what you’re feeling right now is a good sign. It shows that you aren’t exempt from your company values just because you’re in a position of authority or because you've been under pressure. That bodes well for your ability to be a good leader.
You aren't exempt from your company values just because you’ve been under pressure.
Having said that, you have some work to do to address the fall-out from your outburst and get back on track with Frances and your team. It's probably going to get uncomfortable. Lean into that. It means you are learning and will come out the other side as a better manager.
The way I see it, this breaks down to three overlapping areas you need to tackle:
Developing your habits
Apologizing to Frances
Leading by example for your team
I’ve put ‘You’ first because even before you try to make amends with Frances, you need to take a few minutes to recognize that the most heartfelt apology in the world means nothing if you blow up again the next time you are under pressure at work.
Schedule some time in the coming weeks, after you’ve initiated steps to repair the current situation with your team, to reflect on what triggers your frustration at work and the conditions that precede it (less sleep, too much overtime, feeling unappreciated). These will be your warning signals in future, indicating that you are at risk of acting in a way you would like to avoid.
Reflect on what triggers your frustration at work and the conditions that precede it.
Next, strategize about specific actions you can take when those conditions arise again. If/then statements can be really helpful here:
"If work volume requires me to work overtime for longer than a few days, then I will make it a priority to get more sleep, practice gratitude, and listen to a funny podcast for a few minutes over lunch."
"If I feel myself getting angry over an error or interaction, then I will excuse myself to take a short walk outside."
The point here is that in stressful or challenging situations, your best defense is healthy, helpful habits, which can only be formed over time. Invest the time now, so that you don’t find yourself back in this situation in the future.
If you find that the triggers are more structural than situational, it may be time to sit down with your own leader or HR to discuss organizational strategies. You may be under pressure, but you shouldn't have to be in it alone.
Okay, so now you know what to do for yourself moving forward. But what about right now? No surprise, you’ve got to talk to Frances and apologize for how you acted.
Acknowledge to yourself that you don’t know exactly how Frances is feeling, and avoid making assumptions. While I normally favour face-to-face communications for anything that could be emotionally charged, this could put her on the spot. Instead, start with a short e-mail letting her know how you feel and that you’d like to apologize in person. The sooner the better, so that whatever she is feeling doesn’t fester.
While I normally favour face-to-face communications for anything that could be emotionally charged, this could put her on the spot.
Assuming Frances is open to hearing from you, meet in a neutral location (not your office), and share with her how you are disappointed in your reaction, that you value her as a team member, and that you’re working to make sure you don’t react this way in future. Listen to her if she chooses to share how this incident made her feel.
Don’t try to explain why conditions at work led to your outburst, it will only sound like you’re making excuses. Don’t make your apology perfunctory or act as though her acceptance of it is a formality or a foregone conclusion. If she needs time to think things over and process, that's okay. Make her aware of other avenues for support or advice (like your EAP, or a contact in HR).
You’re absolutely right that this incident will have a broader impact on your team. Your reaction to Frances’ mistake—and that’s all it was—has signaled to your team that they are just one wrong move away from being verbally humiliated at work.
Our organizations’ cultures aren’t what we say they are; they are the result of the behaviour we encourage, reward, ignore and tolerate. When incivility and disrespectful behaviour go unaddressed, particularly when it’s from a manager or person in power, it tells others that it’s okay, which sets a cycle in motion that can be hard to stop.
When incivility and disrespectful behaviour go unaddressed, it signals to others that this is okay, which sets a cycle in motion that can be hard to stop.
Consider this your opportunity to disrupt that cycle. By doing so, you’ll contribute to the culture you want and need on your team and in your organization.
Talk to your team, in person, together. Let them know you've acted in a way that you’re not proud of. Declare your discomfort. Be vulnerable. Let them know that you don’t think that’s how a leader or good team member acts and that you’re going to do better. You mentioned that you have company values - this is a great opportunity to prove that corporate values are more than fancy words on a poster.
I don’t suggest any of this will be easy. But if you mean it, it will be powerful, and I suspect you’ll regain your team’s trust and their respect. It’s moments like these that shape a company's culture for the months and years ahead. Good luck.