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How to deal with an Angry Boss

Estimated reading time: 4 mins

Being on the receiving end of anger is a horrible experience, but when it’s your boss it can be even more traumatic. What should you do?

I have experienced ‘hair-dryer moments’ – when my boss has shouted loudly and aggressively at me – and they count as some of the worst experiences in my life. The heat and light of the moment is awful, and so is the subsequent frostiness of our relationship.

First thing I want to say is that nobody has the right to be physically aggressive towards us, so not matter what you have done to provoke a reprimand from your boss, anger and physical intimidation are not acceptable. It is not appropriate for the workplace, and can be a form of bullying.

But in the real world, it happens. So what do we do in these situations?

There is a right way, and a wrong way, to dealing with an Angry Boss.

The wrong way is to respond with anger. You’ll get into a battle that escalates, likely beyond a point of no return. Your relationship will struggle to survive this hostility! Besides, you’ll lose any moral high ground you start with. I strongly urge you to avoid getting angry, by mustering up all the patience, and virtue, you possibly can.

But this doesn’t mean you are a punch-bag. When anger turns to violence or abuse, that’s a different matter; staying safe is paramount. It’s important that you reach other people to witness what’s happening and ensure your safety.

You did not cause the anger

Anger is a choice. Whatever has happened, you did not cause the anger. Your boss might be venting because of stress or the pressure of work; perhaps your boss got stuck in traffic that morning and was wound right up; or your boss could be angry in response to a different situation – it’s just being projected at you. Maybe you really did make a mistake? But whatever the underlying reason, you did not directly give cause for anger. It is important to know this. Because once you accept that the anger is not your fault, it will be much easier to handle, with a level head. You will be emotionally distant from it, and be more difficult to upset.

Get to the cause

The more you focus the conversation on the cause of the issue, rather than the consequences of it, the quicker you will dis-arm the situation. My advice is to ask lots of questions and be patient when receiving the answers. Don’t interrupt or be defensive. You can’t deal with a problem until you get to its cause.

There is a tool called the ‘5 Whys Method‘ – and it’s quite simple to understand. We simply ask the question why until we get to the root cause (the number 5 coming from research that 5 is the average number of questions asked to get to the desired outcome.) When using this method, try to steer towards facts instead of opinions; don’t jump to immediate conclusions; ask another question if the current answer is not precise enough to clarify the problem; and work with causes, not symptoms. This method can be used by anyone, in any situation, and it doesn’t require lots of practice to work.

Apologize

Only once you have got to the root of the problem causing the anger might you be required to give an apology.

There is nothing wrong with admitting your mistake and apologizing whole-heartedly. I find that being really honest and to the point has worked. Not that long ago, I made a genuine mistake – an error of judgment – and my boss didn’t like it. He got angry. I discovered why, and apologized for my mistake. I told him “OK, I really f**ked up. I am sorry. I made a mistake and I now understand that wasn’t what I should have done. I will put it right.”

The ‘colorful’ language is entirely appropriate for this situation with my boss. It told him how serious I was. Using words like this yourself may not be the way to go. You must be the judge of that!

Check out my final statement in my apology. I will put it right. This is an important component of any apology. A solution to the problem you caused is vital in alleviating the anger.

Describe your own feelings

If your boss is still angry after trying the above, then turn the conversation onto your own feelings. Your bosses anger will have an affect on you and your colleagues, and it’s time your boss understood this.

But don’t accuse your boss – statements that being with ‘I’ instead of ‘You’ keeps the focus of the conversation on your feelings. Accusations will add to your bosses emotional state and anger. Rather, stay calm, stay respectful, and describe how you’re feeling right now. You can be honest by telling your boss that you feel intimidated, or confused, or whatever you’re feeling. The important thing is to be honest and assertive.

If you’re reading this after leaving a heated exchange with your boss, then this is a good ‘second round’ opener.

Have you had an angry boss?

Please share your story by leaving a comment below, or starting a thread in my forums.

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This post is part 4 of 14 in the series You and Your Boss
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About the author /


Simon is a creative and passionate business leader dedicated to having fun in the pursuit of high performance and personal development. He is co-founder of Applied Change, a Business Change consultancy based in the UK. Simon is also an Ambassador for Gloucestershire business. Simon is an Associate Member of the Chartered Institute of Professional Development.

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