It finally happened. You snapped and yelled at that annoying coworker, or your boss finally got under your skin so much, you actually cried. Now come the feelings of shame, embarrassment, and, “What do I do now?”
Losing your cool at work can be a problem. In the best-case scenario, it leaves people a little unsettled. More serious emotional outbursts can threaten your job and your career, says psychologist Casey Mulqueen, director of research and product development at leadership training company TRACOM Group in Centennial, Colorado. Determining the damage done, making it right, and getting your cool, calm, and collected cred back requires some strategy and work.
The first step is to take an objective look at the situation and assess the potential damage, says Tom Gimbel, CEO of human resources consulting firm LaSalle Network in Chicago. If you’ve got a stellar track record and this was a onetime lapse in control—assuming it wasn’t threatening or didn’t create hostility in the workplace–that’s one thing. If you have a history of outbursts or a few dings in your reputation, that could make the matter more serious, he says.
The other key component to analyzing the situation was to determine why it got to you. Once you’ve had some time to cool down, look at why this situation was so upsetting for you, Mulqueen says. Did the encounter itself trigger your reaction, or was there an underlying issue, such as a personal problem that’s adding stress to your life? When you can name the trigger, you can work on the best way to address it.
After you’ve had some time to reflect, it’s important to address the situation with the people involved, Gimbel says. That may mean an apology—or it may not. The best response depends on the trigger for your anger. But it’s usually important to explain the situation and why you got angry, to help others put it in perspective, Mulqueen says.
It also helps you to recognize that those types of things are going to be triggers for you, so you can better prepare for them in the future. He calls that process “name it and frame it.” Saying something like, “I’d like you to understand why I got upset yesterday,” can go a long way towards helping people see your side, he says.
If an apology is necessary—and it’s usually a good idea after an angry outburst—then be focused and specific. State the issue and why you got angry, and be specific about the reason for your apology. It may be a good idea to apologize for the outburst, but the underlying circumstances may still be a problem, Gimbel says. For example, you may apologize for getting angry and disrupting a meeting, but state that you still have serious concerns about the matter that was being discussed.
Once you’ve apologized, it’s important not to ruminate on the matter, Gimbel says. Let it go as best you can and move on, with a focus on avoiding such outbursts in the future.
Even though you’re moving on, your coworkers may need some time. There may still be some hard feelings, or they may feel compelled to tease you about it. Mulqueen says it’s important to keep your cool in such situations. Obviously, you don’t have to tolerate abusive behavior, but you may need to take a bit of ribbing after the fact.
“Sometimes, the best way to handle teasing and humor is with humor,” Mulqueen says. “When you’re approaching [people] for the first time after you’ve had the outburst, having a little bit of fun at your own expense is not necessarily a bad thing.”
In more serious situations, where the human resources department is involved or where some sort of disciplinary action is taken, it’s important to adhere to the expectations given, Gimbel says. In those cases, it may take more time to rebuild your reputation.
But by analyzing the triggers and either avoiding them or learning to remain calm or remove yourself from a situation that’s upsetting to you, you’re going to strengthen your leadership potential in the eyes of those around you, Gimbel says.