Dealing with Difficult Employees – Part 1: The Emotional Employee

If you find yourself being careful when counseling certain employees because you don’t want to trigger an emotional outburst, you can join the ranks of thousands of supervisors who have had to deal with emotional employees.  Performance counseling sessions are already charged with some degree of emotion because no one enjoys being told they need to improve their performance or change their behavior.   But some employees take this human reaction to a different level.

Emotional employees generally fall into two categories:  Those who get angry and those who cry.   What is interesting is that although the demonstration of emotion is different, the root cause may be the same – for example, stress or fear can trigger either emotion. When we are under stress, the body’s natural, physiological reaction is to “fight” or “flight”.  Fight means we challenge the source of the fear.  Flight means we run from it.  The angry person elects the fight option.  The person who cries elects the flight option.

The first thing to remember when confronted with an emotional reaction is that the employee’s mental state may have nothing to do with you or even the work environment.  Everybody comes to work with their own particular set of issues – big or small. Life can throw us some pretty big curves and, because we are human, we react.  So you may be dealing with an employee who is on edge for reasons outside of work.  But nonetheless, the performance concern must be dealt with, so you proceed.

Dealing with Anger (Loud, Aggressive Behavior)

What are the characteristics?

During a counseling session, the angry employee may have a very short fuse.  They can become extremely agitated and animated.  They will raise their voice and try to take control.  Their intent is to let you to know in very clear terms that they feel wronged and that they are upset.  Remember too that, in some circumstances, an angry employee may use aggressive behavior as a ploy to intimidate the supervisor, hoping this will shorten the counseling session or prevent meetings like this in the future.

What should you do?

  • Let the Employee Vent:  Unless the behavior is egregious and insubordinate, give the employee a moment or two to let off some steam.  You won’t get anywhere if you cut them off.   Part of their frustration may be linked to a perception that no one respects or hears them.  So listening for a while helps.  This does not mean that you become this passive punching bag.  Just hold back a bit on asserting your authority at the start of conversation.  If the employee feels they are being heard, they may begin to settle done on their own.  It is important to find the balance between listening to what the employee has to say and maintaining your authority.
  • Set the Terms for the Discussion:  After the employee blows of some steam, or when you feel they have had enough time to vent, say something like, “I want to hear what you have to say, but not in this manner. If we can talk respectfully to each other, I’ll be glad to listen.”  Say this in a low, calm tone of voice to offset the antics of the angry employee.  This helps you take back control.  Once the person begins to calm down, you can move forward with the purpose of the session.
  • Do not Show Empathy for Their Anger.  As a supervisor, you do not want to imply that you condone this behavior by being empathetic.  Tough love is required in these cases.  You can say something factual, like “I understand you’re upset.” But don’t cater to their anger.  Otherwise, it’s like pacifying a child during a temper tantrum.
  • Try not to Focus on the Anger.  If this becomes a contest of wills, you can get frustrated or even angry yourself.  You might find yourself getting pulled into the unprofessional behavior.  If you do, you lose control of the conversation.  Think more about the reasons behind the behavior.  Why are they acting this way?  What drives them? (See “What Makes Them Behave This Way” below.)
  • Establish Agreement about Something.  This is a technique used by expert negotiators.  Lay some groundwork by finding something the two of you can agree on.  For example, “Bill, I think we can agree that we both want this project to get done correctly.  Would you concur?”
  • Reschedule the Counseling Session.  There are times when the person simply won’t calm down long enough to have a useful discussion.   There are several ways to approach this.  You can tell the employee that you are going give them a few minutes to collect themselves and leave the room.  You can reschedule the conversation for later that day; or if you really think the employee needs time to cool off, you can schedule for the next day.  But do NOT let the employee off the hook.  Make it clear that you are going to address the performance issue either now or soon after.

Remember that when confronted with an angry employee, the person in control wins.  If you maintain your control, you have a much better shot at a constructive outcome.   Also, don’t forget that your other employees will be watching closely to see how you handle anger directed at you.  Even though you are having a private discussion, chances are your staff will know about it… or hear it.  Your ongoing ability to lead your staff will depend in part on their interpretation of your behavior.

What Do You Do When They Cry?

What are the characteristics?

These employees tend to be sensitive to criticism.  They can become fragile and breakdown during a performance counseling session if they think their value is being questioned.  They tend to exaggerate the harshness of the moment.  From your point of view, you’re just relating the facts.  But they see this as an admonishment for something at which they are failing.  Crying employees are similar to the angry employees.  The difference is they use tears rather than shouting to express their emotion.

Like the angry employee, the crying employee may be attempting to avoid the meeting.  Employees know that some bosses can be very uncomfortable dealing with tears.  So crying is another way to interrupt or delay the counseling session.

What should you do?

  • Treat the Tears as if They Were Words.  Imagine the tears are saying that the employee is afraid or overwhelmed.  The outburst and the tears are just an emotional manifestation of the issue.  Because the employee is not being aggressive, like the angry employee, empathy can be used effectively in these cases.   You can say something like, “I can see that you are upset.”  Or “I can understand that this is difficult for you.”  The idea is to acknowledge their feelings so that they will not feel the need to keep emphasizing them.
  • Don’t Let the Crying Affect Your Intentions.  Depending on a supervisor’s natural reaction to tears, some run the risk minimizing the problem to try to make the employee feel better.  Don’t let the tears change your position on why you asked to speak with this employee in the first place.  You can be empathetic, but remain firm.  Otherwise, the performance or behavioral problem will continue.
  • Offer Them a Tissue.  Any seasoned supervisor knows that you must have a box of tissues somewhere handy for moments like these.  Not only is it a nice gesture to offer the tissue, but doing so breaks the rhythm of the crying.  Particularly if the employee is sobbing, reaching for the tissue and whatever comes next, gives the employee a chance to collect themselves.  Also, calmly handing a tissue box to someone who is crying shows control (I’m relaxed) in addition to empathy.
  • Reschedule.  As with the angry employee, if the person is really distraught to the level where you cannot have a useful conversation, either give them a few minutes to get their emotions under control (with you out of the room) or reschedule the meeting.  But reschedule it soon – such as later that day or the next morning.  Do not play into any delay tactics

For some, crying is an automatic, physiological response (the Flight syndrome I mentioned above).  Try not to give the impression that you disapprove of the crying.  Don’t act impatient or insensitive as this will only increase the employee’s stress level and bring on more tears.

What Makes Them Behave This Way?

Remember when you were a kid and you wanted to get daddy’s attention.  You might try things like pulling on his pant legs or keep repeating “Daddy” at the speed of light?   Well, in a sense, this is what the emotional employee is doing to you.  Assuming the emotional reaction is sincere and not a delay tactic, these employees mostly just want to know that you are listening.  A little respect in these moments can go a long way.

Another idea I share when I coach supervisors is the “What makes this person tick?” approach.  We can get so wrapped up in the emotional encounter and our natural desire to gain control that we don’t consider the root causes.   I’m not suggesting that you are responsible for resolving every difficultly in their lives (see “You’re Not a Therapist” below).  But you might try asking a question like, “Mary, I’m just curious.  What makes you so angry?  I see you getting upset over many things and I’m curious to know why.”  See if you can get them to open up and not be so defensive.

I used this approach with a very difficult employee back in my days as an Operations Manager with the airlines.  She was always quoting rules and regulations to passengers with a bit of arrogance because she confused being right with being effective.  Inevitably, I would have to intervene because the passengers would get upset.  One day, I called her into my office for a chat.  She thought that I was going to counsel her and she was ready to do battle.  Instead, I told her I was worried about her because being so inflexible and angry all the time was going to make her sick.  Then I asked what triggered these behaviors and emotions.  I don’t have time to give you the full story, but suffice to say my question completely changed the demeanor of the conversation.  Things got decidedly better after that.

You’re Not a Therapist

For those of you who attended our Corps Coaching Techniques program, you may remember that I had everyone raise their hand and state clearly, “I am not a therapist”.   I did this for a very important reason.  It is not your job to cure an employee who may have some deep-rooted emotional problems.  Keep in mind that emotional outbreaks can be a sign of a more serious, personal problem.  These can include substance addictions, domestic abuse, and other severe issues.  If you feel that you are dealing with a very serious problem, be sure to get some help from your Human Resources staff and your Employee Assistance Program.


As usual, I welcome your comments and opinions.  I also invite you to ask any questions you may have regarding leadership in general or a specific supervisory situation or challenge you may have encountered.  I’ll do my best to respond quickly.  You can use either the “Leave a Reply” box or the “Post Comment” link below.  (Name and email address are not required.).

Thanks for your time and consideration,

If you would like more information about our Corps Coaching Techniques program, click HERE, or call me at (310) 569-4576.