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Ask Skip: Is There Any Place for a Boss to Show Anger By Yelling in Front of Others in the Workplace?

All Ask Skip Questions that appear in this blog are actual questions submitted to me directly from blog subscribers or other inquiries that come in through the main website or via my Social Media pages on LinkedInTwitter and Facebook. Feel free to submit your own “Leadership, Teamwork or Workplace Communication”question here!


I’m a amazed at how many times I get this question. And, this is an easy one to answer. The answer is an emphatic “NO!”

This is wrong in so many ways:

  1. It is demeaning and degrading to the victim.
  2. It is teaching employees the type of ‘communication’ that is acceptable in the workplace.
  3. It is violating the type of respect every human being deserves, and the type of respect every leader/boss would proclaim they want in their workplace and they expect from their employees.
  4. It is leading with ‘position’ power and not ‘relationship’ power and is creating a’compliance culture’ where employee perform only because they ‘have to,’ not because they ‘want to.’
  5. It shows an extreme lack of “Emotional Intelligence” and “Emotional Mastery,” a vital skill for leaders to lead (it is one of the 6 skills I offer in “The Confident Leaders Training Camp.”)

Many organizational leaders, even the ones that occasionally raise their voices in front of their employees, would agree they would like a work environment where “everyone treated each other as they would like to be treated.” I’ve never had a leader not agree with that statement, yet often they violate that value, and wonder why their workplace is not as positive and motivated as they want it to be.

Raising one’s voice in the workplace is one of “The 7 Deadliest Sins of Leadership & Workplace Communication,” which I wrote about in my 2010 white paper of the same title. It is available as a free at download  www.HowToImproveLeadershipCommunication.com

My wife and i were have this discussion a couple of weeks ago about a supervisor at her job who had a very negative communication style. She didn’t yell, but showed her anger in other ways, with inappropriate tone and sarcasm.

This department leader has told the people she manages that she communicates her displeasure in this way she is able to “get it off her chest,” and move on. She says she is done with it and moves on holding no grudges or hard feelings to the person she just spoke to.

The challenge with this type of leadership communication approach is that, although, the leader may have been able to get it off their chest in this manner, the damage to the employee being spoken to in that manner lives with the degradation and humiliation forever. It will kill the relationship and the trust between the boss and the employee until the leader apologizes and the individual is truly able to let go. Sometimes this never happens and trust continues to erode.

I work with my organizational leaders (and their teams) to develop a positive workplace communication culture based on four core values of communication of respect, empathy, specificity and genuineness. Once the organization truly commits to this type of workplace culture it is very powerful and positive and has proven to explode results by creating a highly engaged workforce based on high levels of trust.

If anyone reading this would like to assess their present workplace culture and identify specific strategies to create that type of work environment, click here to learn about how you could benefit from a Breakthrough Leadership Assessment Strategy Session.

’til next time, make it a great day!

skip weisman, helping leaders motivate employees to improve organizational performance

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There are 13 comments. Add yours.

  1. Bill McClain

    Skip, you are spot on with that response. But it should be recognized that yelling, in some situations, is effective in getting compliance. However, it gets that compliance by stopping communication. In the extreme, that leaves a monolithic and sycophantic culture, the exact opposite of “teamwork”.

    Well said, Skip.

  2. Bill,
    Thanks for stopping by and commenting, I’m pleased to have you agree with my reply.

    It continues to amaze me at how many organizational leaders fail to recognize the incongruence between the communication style and actions and what they say they expect or would like to see from others on their teams.

    A great resource for those interested in exploring that gap is the book “Leadership & Self-Deception” by The Arbinger Institute. It is very enlightening.

  3. John Covey

    Excellent article Skip; but, I do have a different opinion.

    As managers, we all have a behavioral golf bag that we rely on. Each of us has developed that bag of responses over time based on who we are, where we’ve been, and where we currently are. In every case there are operational requirements as well as situational needs that sometimes dictate that response we use in any given situation. For example, the “soft touch” may be ineffective with some individuals, and the “but-chewing” may back fire with others. It’s a matter of selecting the appropriate behavior for the situation.

    In biology, there’s a term called requisite variety. What that means is that the organism in any given ecosystem with the greatest number of behavioral responses is the one that will thrive. It’s the organism that can withstand the greatest variance in temperature, can eat the most different kinds of food, or can adapt better to the weather that will succeed. How this applies to us as leaders is very simple. We as managers need to fully develop a wide variety of managerial responses to be successful, as well as learn when it is appropriate to use them.

    As human beings however we often tend to drop behaviors that we are uncomfortable with or that don’t seem successful at first. Worse still is that we tend to over rely on those behaviors that seemed successful at the time. If someone has used a heavy handed tactic and gained compliance, they sometimes then rely on that tactic as the only means of success. This is the antithesis of requisite variety and a severe limit on our personal growth. An overused strength in many cases becomes a weakness.

    What we need to do is manage our behavioral responses like a stock portfolio. Unfortunately that does include limited situations where the strictest and most forceful response is appropriate. “Stop what you are doing right now” said very loudly is appropriate if you observe an employee doing something unsafe. And if you happen to be a military leader, the stakes can be even higher. As a former law enforcement officer myself, I recall the “use of force continuum”. It was a model of police behaviors to gain control a situation that lead up to and included lethal force. But it always started with simple verbal commands. It doesn’t begin with beating on someone.

    Having recognized that there are some occasional valid uses for a forceful approach, I do submit that there is never a place for abusing staff. As leaders we need to have first and foremost a commitment to our teams, and ourselves, to have the highest moral integrity when it comes to how we treat people. The hard approach is something that must be reserved for the rarest of occasions. And forcefully directing someone is not the same thing as losing one’s temper. I’ve had my backside kicked by professionals in training; something I later came to respect them for. But I’ve also unfortunately worked for the spoiled tyrant. At the end of the day I can’t find anything to respect a person like that for at all.

    The actions of bawling someone out are not the same as the principals that guide those actions. If you lack character and just yell as a means of motivation simply because you don’t have the skills, or worse because you lack the character to control yourself, then you don’t deserve to be in a position of leadership to begin with.

  4. Skip Weisman, Workplace Communication Expert

    John,
    Excellent points made. I love the “Law of Requisite Variety.” You are correct in that it applies not just to the world of biology but leadership and almost any other field, for that matter. The basic premise is the more varied tools we have in our toolbelt to deal with situations as they arise will allow us to be most successful. I teach that in my leadership programs, as well.

    What you are describing is a leader who is very highly skilled in emotional intelligence. I also agree that an escalating scale of directness is important to apply and there is a significant difference between being loud, direct and succinct to get something done in the heat of battle, is much different than yelling at someone in front of others in the work place because of “anger,” which was what the question posed.

    Your approach is the ideal, and is my wish for every leader I coach to become. Some have a longer way to go than others. Thanks for your outstanding contribution and taking the time to submit it.

  5. Great article Skip and some very thought-provoking comments from your readers.

    One thought about human communication I’d like to add- there’s a difference between acting out “anger” (or any other emotion) and expressing anger, that many people, leaders and managers included, just don’t understand.

    Yes, in “life and death” situations, such as in the operating room, in combat, or when a police officer is dealing with a suspect, escalation or a “show of emotion” may be necessary to impact the thoughts and actions of others. If someone is getting ready to inject a patient with the wrong medication, please do scream “STOP!” especially if that patient is me!

    However, in most people’s everyday work life, screaming, yelling, and letting off steam at an employees’ expense is inappropriate and unnecessary for all the reasons you outline in your initial post.

    Expressing” anger (versus acting it out) is something different. It’s okay to say, “When you’re late a third time after you promised to be here on time, I get angry, because I have to pay overtime to someone from the night shift.” In addition, it’s okay to say it in a firm, direct, tone with adequate volume to be taken seriously.

    Saying, I’m angry, I’m disappointed, etc., “like you mean it” is usually sufficient to get employees’ attention and will garner the desired results.

  6. Skip Weisman, Workplace Communication Expert

    Amy,
    Thank you for adding value to the conversation. You made some great clarifications and insights and provided some nice language for people to apply when they need to offer direct feedback in situations that warrant it. Please come back again.

  7. I kinda get bored with the bland, flat way that passes for management nowadays. We have evolved a set of responses, and one of them is the “sort your act out, this is not acceptable and don’t do it again – not kidding, I’m dangerous” Alpha response. And occassionally shouting reinforces this.

    So to me the answer is yes, it is OK to shout at somebody. Especially when their behaviour is a persistent abrogation of any right they may have to respect.

    • Skip Weisman, Workplace Communication Expert

      John,
      Thank you contributing your thoughts. I can understand the boredom with the blandness you speak about and I’m still uncertain as to how you see yelling at someone as being an effective way to connect with to change a behavior in a way that will take the relationship and performance to a higher level. I think it may be an effective short-term strategy and gain compliance for awhile but I’m not sure its a good long-term approach.

      Additionally, I think we have to look at the impact on others in the environment that are witnesses to the incident. What does it do to their psyche to be part of that type of environment?

      Maybe I’m missing your point, feel free to clarify. Thanks, again!

  8. Garrett

    To say yes or no to this question without getting into why this happened – this is a judgment call on everyone’s part… Categorizing actions as harassment or human rights violation is also to acknowledge your capacity to be judgmental and your own lack of grace. How many times have we walked into something, made a judgment (shared or not) only to find out much later that it was not even close to what we thought it was?

    What I do know is the guilty party is always the least affected in any situation – review your own lives and you will find this is more than correct… Yelling is a form of emotion that has its place, but I do agree it is not in front of everyone and should only be from the heart, if at all…

    • Skip Weisman, Workplace Communication Expert

      Garrett, Thanks so much for stopping by and being inspired to leave a comment. I appreciate your thoughts and agree it is challenging to pass judgement on a situation and paint every situation in a generic manner. I also believe that leaders MUST lead their organizations and bring to the organization the behaviors and communication style they expect others to carry on in their organization. Leaders set corporate culture through their actions and must be hold themselves to a higher standard otherwise the work environment and culture will be compromised and not be a place where people want to spend time and go the extra mile.

      Yelling from the heart, though, is an interesting concept I’ve never considered and not sure what that would be like?
      Thanks, again for adding to the discussion here.

  9. Sometimes communication doesn’t have to take communication to another level, it is and achieves it’s purpose in that it gets the task done when it needs to be done.

  10. Hi Skip,

    Great article. I posted a question a while back in the answer section of LinkedIn. Perhaps you can lend some advice. How does an employee who works for a boss that does yell or berate employees public deal with the situation?

    I know a specific case where this is done. The employee that told me about it has never experienced the yelling or berating, but has been embarassed for the both the business and those that receive the public “dressing down.”

    It and similar practices happen at places where they are not expected too. I know of a situation in several public schools, where a prinipal well yell at staff members.

    While it is not often done in the open, but in the principal’s office it was more than loud enought to be heard and understood by anyone in the main office space.

    Alex

    • Skip Weisman, Workplace Communication Expert

      Alex,
      Thanks for stopping by and being inspired to leave a comment. If you can point me to the link on LinkedIn, I’d be happy to join that discussion if I’m in the group and see if I can add value to it.

      My first response is that yelling at someone in public or private is never appropriate. A leader does not need to raise his/her voice in a demeaning manner to make their point in a direct, powerful, no-nonsense manner. If they have position power, they don’t need to yell and show their anger to get it, they have position power and can simply use that to gain compliance for the short-term. If they use specific, direct language, offering natural negative consequences, their point will be made.

      There is never, ever an appropriate time to embarrass, demean someone in a professional or personal setting. What’s the point of doing that?

      It seems from the comments I’ve received here and on the LinkedIn discussion some people try to justify it. And, therefore, I always come back to the purpose of it, why would someone engage in that behavior:

      1) They have low levels of emotional mastery and can not control their anger
      2) They have self-esteem issues and have to demean others to life themselves up
      3) They have limited influencing communication skills and believe this is a way to get someone to comply with their demands (this is a command and control work culture)

      A true leader can make their point, gain buy-in and commitment to a different level of behavior through influencing communication through a relationship based on trust and offering positive consequences first, and natural negative consequences down the road if the first attempt doesn’t get the results they are after.

      Regardless, there is never an appropriate time to yell and raise voices at another human being using anger as an excuse. If someone is doing it because of a crisis, like a fire in the building or a tornado coming down the street, that’s different because its done for positive intent of the person being yelled at. In no other circumstance is it appropriate, or even necessary.

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