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Like a Boss: “I lost my temper and created tension in the team. How do I fix it?”

July 21, 2020
By

Welcome to Lattice’s advice column for new managers, “Like a Boss.” I’m your host, Jennifer Romolini. I’m an editor, an author (of the career guide “Weird In a World That’s Not”), and, yes, a boss who’s been managing other humans for the past dozen or so years at companies both giant and tiny, at quick and dirty startups and multi-layered corporations, with remote and in-office teams ranging from five to 45. I’m also a speaker who talks about succeeding at work even when you feel like a freak. And, sometimes, I give advice, like right now.  

Dear Boss,

Since everything with COVID started in March, I’ve tried my best to be an understanding manager, to accommodate my team and be sensitive to their needs while also making sure everyone is doing their job. I don’t know if the pressure of it all was finally getting to me or what, but last week, I really messed up. 

We were on an all-team video call and a handful of my direct reports were complaining about an unpleasant client and acting, to my mind, unreasonable. Everyone was coming at me at once with ALL the problems, but no one had a solution. Thing is, I don’t like this client either, but now is not exactly the time to be turning down business and I couldn’t believe that this group of adults could not just suck up a few challenges when we know we all need to get paid. Anyway, I kind of lost it. I lost my temper, I yelled, I indirectly called someone a baby, and I called out someone else’s poor work performance in front of everyone. 

After this, everyone on the call was awkward and quiet and I ended the meeting — we haven’t all met “in person” since. Now the entire team is acting tense and overly formal over Slack and email. I know I messed up and created tension in the team, but as the days go on, I don’t really know how to fix it? Should I just let the entire episode go or bring it up and address it? I honestly don’t know which is worse…

Losing it in the Bay Area

Dear Losing It,

Managing is rarely ever easy, but it’s especially daunting now when we’re all feeling at least a bit helpless and hopeless — when the world outside our Zoom calls is filled with varying degrees of doom. It makes sense that your employees are frustrated but also that your tolerance for their frustration is low. Few of us are at our best in mid-year 2020. 

So first I’d ask you to: Be compassionate with and forgive yourself. It’s okay that you’re imperfect, it’s okay that you had a bad day — this doesn’t mean you, yourself, are bad. You will have better days after this. But you’re just going to have to endure a bit of discomfort first.

Should you apologize? I’m going to answer this question by telling you something I think you already know, which is: No matter what your title is or your position in the org chart or how much money you make, when you do something wrong, something that disrespects other people, and possibly even makes them feel unsafe, you should say you’re sorry. 

We need to normalize accountability. We need to normalize apologies from people in power. Despite what you may have heard or internalized from some problematic powerful people’s messaging, apologizing will not make you look weak. It will not make you look like less of a leader. Even if it did either of those things (which it will not!), apologizing is the right thing to do. And honestly, a lesson all of us who live in this murky, performative society could learn is to focus less on how things “look” and more on how to live according to our values.

So how to effectively take accountability in a way that makes this situation better instead of worse?

It’s probably more simple than you think. In an appropriate moment, with the same team who was on the original call, admit your mistake. Acknowledge what happened. Express contrition. Show how you plan to change your behavior. 

Take a deep breath, accept that it’s going to feel awkward, and say something like, “I’m so sorry I was impatient and even rude on our call last week. I behaved disrespectfully. I didn’t listen to your concerns or communicate in a way that’s aligned with my values. I want this to be a place where we communicate with each other thoughtfully and can express constructive criticism and I want to be a leader who listens. I think there’s a productive conversation to be had about X client and I’d like to facilitate it in the next few weeks. I’d love any ideas or feedback on how to do this.” 

That’s it. Don’t make it about you or your feelings. Don’t expect a congratulatory party afterward. Don’t imagine that your employees owe you anything in return. 

If there’s an individual relationship you think you damaged in your initial rant (which it sounds like there is), reach out to that person or those people separately. Address your mistake and say you’re sorry. Don’t linger on the details or make it more uncomfortable than it needs to be. Understand that by apologizing you are just beginning to repair these relationships, that the awkwardness and formality may linger longer than you want. You’re rebuilding trust; it’s okay if it doesn’t happen overnight. 

No one loves owning their mistakes, but by apologizing you’re creating a culture of accountability, an environment where it’s okay to acknowledge doing the wrong thing. Fumbling and failing are inherent to being human, but how we handle our human failings ultimately makes all the difference.