Recovering from an Emotional Outburst at Work

Recovering from an Emotional Outburst at Work
Author: Susan David (hbr.org)

It happens — we all get emotional at work. You might scream, or cry, or pound the table and stamp your feet. This is not ideal office behavior, of course, and there are ramifications to these outbursts, but they don’t have to be career-killers either. If you take a close look at what happened, why you acted the way you did, and take steps to remedy the situation, you can turn an outburst into an opportunity.

Some people are more prone to tantrums at work, especially those who lack the emotional skills to process feelings as they’re occurring. These people tend to fall into two categories: those who suppress their emotions and those who ruminate on them.

If you suppress emotions, you “sit on them” and try to pretend they just don’t exist. You might feel frustrated, undermined, or put out by a colleague, and instead of addressing it or even recognizing that’s what you’re feeling, you ignore it. These people often think, “Sure, I’m upset but I’m just going to get on with the project.” And then they plow forward.

This might be your emotional orientation because you’re task-focused, or you don’t believe emotions belong at work. But research shows that the effort of constantly pushing emotions aside or ignoring them, takes up cognitive resources. And in experiments people who suppress emotion are worse at problem solving skills, task completion, and interpersonal relationships. In the long run this style also predicts lower well-being. The irony is that often people put aside emotions because they think it will help them get on with their work when in fact, it hinders their ability to be effective.

The second group of people who are prone to emotional outburst are those who ruminate, or do what I call, “sit in emotions.” If this is you, you are more likely to go over and over a situation in your mind, thinking, “I was undermined, I’ve been wronged, I’ve been mistreated.” You become so consumed with what you’re feeling that you can’t move on to solving the problem. Dwelling on your emotions this way makes it difficult for you to take others’ perspectives and increases the chances you’ll lash out if someone challenges you.

While these two emotional styles — suppressing and ruminating — look completely different, they both deplete cognitive and emotional resources and result in the same poor outcomes in terms of problem solving, interpersonal relationships and wellbeing.

Once you’ve recognized that one of these styles is at the root of your behavior, the trick is to not fall prey to it again. If it’s your tendency to suppress, you’re going to want to ignore your tantrum and move on. If you are prone to ruminating, you’re going to want to overthink your outburst and beat yourself up about it.

Instead, treat your outburst for what it is: data. A key emotional intelligence skill is being able to manage your emotion, but you can’t manage what you can’t recognize and understand. So first, be open to emotions. What was I feeling here? Emotions are signals, beacons that show you that you care about something.

To recognize your emotions, you have to be able to differentiate between feelings — sadness, anger, frustration. In many work environments, people suffer from what psychologists call alexithymia — a dispositional difficulty in accurately labeling and expressing what they’re feeling. These people tend to be vague about their emotions. So a manager will say to herself, for example, “Gee, I yelled because I was really stressed out.” But that gives her no information about what was really going on. After all, there’s a world of difference between being “stressed out” and being disappointed or put upon or feeling betrayed. There’s a strong body of research that shows the ability to be differentiated in labeling feelings will protect you from having outbursts in the future and will improve your relationships.

Once you’ve recognized the emotion — fear, disappointment, anger —your next step is to understand what exactly caused it. Why is it that I reacted in this particular way? What was happening in this situation that I found upsetting? What values of mine may have been transgressed or challenged? For example, maybe you lost it and screamed at a colleague when you found out that your project was cut. If you dig deeper you may find that it wasn’t exactly about the project but rather how the decision was made; that you didn’t feel it was made fairly.

The research on emotions shows that there are general triggers that you should be aware of. When your outburst is anger — yelling, stomping feet — it’s typically because you’re frustrated or feel thwarted. You’ve been stopped from doing something that’s important to you. When you feel sadness or cry, it’s usually because of a loss. Acting out on anxiety is prompted by a sense of threat. It’s helpful to think about these universal triggers, and then ask, what is it specifically that was important to me in this situation?

Once you’ve recognized how you feel, and why you feel it, you can focus on what to do to make things better — to manage the situation. It goes without saying that you should apologize if you yelled or lost your cool, but that’s not enough. Your goal isn’t just to repair the relationship, but to strengthen it.

After you’ve calmed down, and you return to your team the following day or week, instead of saying, “Gee, I’m so sorry about what I did; now let’s move on,” address what really happened for you. You might say something like, “I got really mad and I’m not proud of my behavior. I’ve been thinking long and hard about what it was that I found so upsetting and I’ve realized that my sense of fairness was challenged because of how the defunding decisions were made.”

There’s research that shows that when you appropriately disclose your emotions in this way, people are more likely to treat you with compassion and forgiveness than if you had just offered an apology. From there you start a shared conversation about what’s important to each of you and how you can work better together.

No one wants to earn a reputation as a crier or a screamer at work. Instead of running and hiding or wallowing in self-pity when you’ve lost it, bring a good dose of compassion and curiosity to the situation. To be kind and compassionate towards yourself –- especially in the moments you are least proud of –is not the same as letting yourself off the hook. In fact, studies show that people who are self-compassionate are much more likely to hold themselves to high standards and work to make things right. And treating yourself that way is more likely to inspire others to do the same.