The types of brain snaps that occur at work vary enormously. Although let's hope most are not as extreme one Rhett Morris, director of workplace relations firmBulletproof People, was called in to deal with.
“A client employed a crane driver on a construction site who was told by his project manager that he couldn't leave early to go home,” Morris says. “The crane driver climbed back into his crane, started it up and began tearing down the scaffolding on the site – while there were still people on it.”
Morris says it turned out the driver was going through a divorce, was stressed with what was happening at home, and having his project manager tell him he had to work overtime was the last straw.
“Often it is what people are bringing to work that is the problem – not what is happening at work,” he says. “What happens at work is just the trigger.”
Lee Town, director of the Anger Management Institute of Australia, receives many calls from companies about workplace tantrums, which he says stem from people feeling out of control. “Rapid changes in technology play a big part in the stress levels of people at work and why tantrums occur,” he says.
“People don't get a psychological break from work these days. If they go on leave they tell colleagues to contact them if needed; they may be friends with their boss on Facebook. The lines are blurred now. There's also the issue of the current economic downturn and the need to work harder and produce more.”
He says tantrums often occur after a breakdown in communication. “Emails are a major form of communication but the way people 'talk' in them is different to how they talk in real conversation. They lose their conversational context.”
One of the reasons for people losing it at work is that they don't understand their role and this leads to conflict about the expectations of colleagues and bosses.
“The way forward is to set firm boundaries about what is expected in a role,” Morris says. “The boss also needs to make it clear as often what is in your job description is not what you end up doing.”
Morris says tantrums at work can appear adolescent and generally involve a defence mechanism. “Often they are characterised by passive aggressive behaviour that affects the morale of the whole group, “ he says.
“We advise people dealing with tantrums to find common ground before taking the higher ground. You need to put yourself in the other person's shoes and that is why a lot of our work is teaching people about empathy. Often the problem stems from managers who can't manage different personalities, particularly extroverts who can't manage introverts.”
If an employee is constantly having workplace tantrums, Town says there are anger management programs that can be effective, although he acknowledges they have a stigma attached.
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“But there is research that found 40 per cent of anger issues can be dealt with in one session,” he says. “So it's not as if you're going to end up going into therapy for life. And it's good to speak to someone impartial.”
Counselling is not the only option. Town says people also need to look after themselves and make sure they have adequate sleep, eat well, take regular breaks away from their desks and get enough exercise.
“Unfortunately, managers are unlikely to look holistically at their employees to see if there are any factors outside work that may cause them to have regular tantrums,” Town says, “especially considering Gen Y employees don't tend to stay in their jobs for long. Bosses may not see the point in investing time in making sure they're OK."
Morris says managers often don't have the skills to turn a confrontation into an empathetic moment. “People feel you need to deal with behaviour immediately but they should use brain snaps to listen,” he says. “They should wait for someone to get through their level of frustration. You almost have to empower them in that