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Handling tantrums - at work

Published on: September 26, 2010

Shari Storm is the author of Motherhood Is the New MBA: Using Your Parenting Skills to Be a Better Boss

“I wear NINE socks.” My two-year-old pouts as she kicks her feet. It’s 7:15 am and I need all three of my daughters out of the house by 7:30 if I am going to be at work on time.

“Nine socks!” she screams. She’s two and she can’t count but that doesn't stop her from throwing a tantrum. I take a deep breath and try a different tactic.

When I arrive at the office there is an email waiting for me. Jan wants to know why she wasn’t asked to present to the board of directors. “After all,” she types, “I AM THE PROJECT EXPERT!” I can tell by her gratuitous use of capitals and the people she copied on the email that she is upset. I asked Bill to make the presentation and now Jan is throwing a tantrum.

Parenting books will tell you that tantrums tend to stop around age four. Don’t believe it. No matter how old we are, when we don’t get our way, we have a strong urge to act out. Tantrums may become more sophisticated, but they don’t go away with age. Just as you are vigilant with your children in holding the line on tantrums, so must you be with your employees.

Here are three pieces of advice for dealing with tantrums at the office:

1. Practice Prevention: Check in with your staff on regular intervals. If they are overworked, bored, or disgruntled, take immediate steps to get a handle on the situation. Just like we watch carefully to make sure our small children are not becoming tired, bored or angry, so should we with our employees. One woman I interviewed for my book said, “I periodically look at my staff’s outlook calendar. If I see too much blue (representing back-to-back commitments), I check in to make sure they aren’t over extending themselves.”

2. Remove them from the environment: Suzy Kellett, who single handedly raised quadruplets and went on to work for the Washington State Film Office, taught her four children early that she would make them leave any public place if they started to act up. “When I started working in the film industry,” she confides, “I sometimes felt like I was raising quads all over again, when people let their tempers flare.” Just like she did with her children, she would take angered producers aside if they started to expose the rest of the crew to their outbursts.

3. Make it clear that acting out is unacceptable: Often, managers fail to do one simple thing – communicate expectations. If you have an employee who acts disruptively in the office, it is your responsibility, as the boss, to tell that person their behavior is unacceptable. When you allow your staff to cause drama because they didn’t get their way, you are undermining yourself. Your staff will not respect you as much and your team will not be as productive if you don’t keep your house in order. Continue to have frank discussions with the offending employee until the undesired behavior stops.

In short, nobody likes a tantrum; especially not the innocent bystanders. As a parent and as a boss, it is your job to make sure they don’t happen often and when they do, they stop quickly and don’t happen again.

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