The Q4 Model

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How Do You Handle an Emotional Direct Report?

Mar. 21st, 2018

The Situation

You are head of product development for an aluminum products firm. Your team has been working on a new type of carport and patio cover. You assigned one of your direct reports, Michael, to gather data about past customers’ buying behavior for similar products.

When you ask if he has the stats, Michael shoots back “Not yet! I know we need this information on Wednesday, but Mindy from Marketing was supposed to get me the numbers. She keeps making excuses. She’s driving me crazy!”

You try to be reassuring, telling Michael you know he can do it, but he becomes more intense. “That’s easy for you to say! My hands are tied. I’m not Mindy’s boss, so what can I do!?”

What’s the Correct Tactic?

You’re puzzled. You thought you were showing confidence in Michael, but it seemed to make things worse. Still, you can’t let Michael off the hook for this information.

Which of the following would be the best approach to keep salvage this conversation and make it productive?

Your Choices:

Ask Michael to get control of himself before going on. You don’t want him to say something inappropriate or out of line.
Tell Michael you understand how he feels, and let him continue sounding off about his frustration until he is in a calmer place.
Offer to speak to Mindy or her boss to make sure she understands that your team must have the information.

Choice A

In a sense, you’ve already asked Michael to control himself, when you tried to put aside his concerns to express confidence in him. That’s a good impulse, but it’s too soon.

As we note in Q4 leadership training, receptivity is so important when working with people. Michael is too full of negative emotions to be receptive. At this point, he needs to vent. If people’s emotions are overwhelming them, their receptivity to discussion, solving a problem, etc., is very low. It’s wiser to deal with that emotion before taking any other steps. Don’t deny Michael his feelings — help dissipate them. See Answer B.

Choice B

It may seem counterintuitive to encourage Michael to continue airing his anger and frustrations. However, as we note in Q4 leadership training, monitoring and raising receptivity are vital before you can advance to a constructive discussion with an emotional direct report. Use a reflective statement. Say something empathetic that reflects Michael’s emotions, such as “This is really getting to you,” or “I can see you’re really upset.”

It doesn’t mean you agree with his version of things, just that you understand how he feels. This should give him permission to let out those negative emotions. Once Michael vents and settles down, his receptivity should climb. He’ll realize that you are listening to him. Then, you can have a much more productive discussion about a strategy to get the information from Mindy. It’s often amazing how defusing strong emotions can clear the mind.

Choice C

You could intervene, and maybe it seems that Michael is hinting that’s what he wants. However, as a leader, you are better off raising receptivity (Answer B) and helping Michael work out his own strategy and solution. This makes it a growth activity in Michael’s own leadership development and problem-solving ability. Your intervention might be a last resort, but it’s not yet necessary.