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How can leaders help defuse an employee outburst or stressed-out reaction?

5 min read


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Q. What can I do in the moment to help defuse an employee’s emotional outburst or stressed-out reaction?

1. Don’t do the talking

Stress or other strong emotions at work are often a result of being overwhelmed, especially if an employee doesn’t feel he or she is being heard. Sometimes the best reaction is to sit back and listen to what the problem, or list of problems, is. After the employee feels listened to, it will be easier to find a solution. – Simon Casuto, eLearning Mind

2. Go for a walk with them

Our team members often go for walks around the block. Fresh air and flowing blood defuses lots of situations. It isn’t a new invention, but it helps a great deal! – Robert Castaneda, ServiceRocket

3. Separate and diffuse

An approach I’ve used successfully in the past starts with discussing the employee’s concerns immediately while walking them out of the open office area and into a private space. Their reaction may be totally justified, but even still, it can be disruptive if too intense and will definitely distract others if the details of their concerns are hashed out right in front of everyone else. —  Zach Robbins, Leadnomics

4. Tell them you care, but don’t commit to anything

People freak out when they think that their boss doesn’t respect their opinions, so show sincerity about their problem. Then let the employee know you will get back to them shortly, but don’t commit to anything in the heat of the moment. It’s very possible they are in the wrong, and getting as much information from fellow employees and managers will help you decide on the best course of action. – Robert De Los Santos, Sky High Party Rentals

5. Call them out on it right away

Our team is fantastic, but sometimes our passion for excellence can get people a little worked up. Calling it out helps us press pause, zoom out and refocus ourselves on the real issues in a collaborative way. – Chris Cancialosi, GothamCulture

6. Listen and validate

Oftentimes, emotional outbursts come from a very childlike part of our souls. We want to be heard and more importantly, we want to be acknowledged and validated. The best way to bring an employee’s stressed or emotional response to a more positive, and less confrontational place, is to first listen fully. Then repeat back to them what they have expressed, with no judgement. Then, resolve it. – Steven Le Vine, grapevine pr

7. Take it to the courts

One of our office perks is a basketball court on-site. On the rare occasion that emotions have escalated past their breaking point, we go shoot some hoops. A bit of exercise allows everyone to relax a bit and open up about what’s wrong and what we can all do better moving forward. This also means we’re removed from our desks and work, in general, so we can act more rationally. – Firas Kittaneh, Amerisleep

8. Be empathetic

It’s all too easy to react negatively when a team member freaks out, like a parent disciplining an unruly toddler (we’ve all seen that in Target, right?). Instead, try to look at the issue from your employee’s perspective, and listen to all they have to say before providing a calmly delivered, practical solution. It can even help to offer an early afternoon break or even a day off to de-stress. – Grant Gordon, Solomon Consulting Group

9. Share a similar story

When someone is going through a rough period, it helps to hear from people who have experienced the same thing. Take the person aside and share a story from your past; embellish a bit if you need to. The point of the story is to say, “I get you.” And take the conversation from there. – Adam Stillman, SparkReel

10. Take a 15-minute breather

Our team is amazing, but anyone can get worked up once in a while. The best thing you can do is temporarily separate yourself from an emotional outburst by taking a breather. A coffee break or 15-minute walk can be the perfect break from a potentially awkward situation. Then, once everyone has regained their composure, you can calmly resume the conversation with a clear head. – Joe Apfelbaum, Ajax Union

11. Listen actively

Take them somewhere private, and let them talk. Work with them to come up with a plan of action, and help them feel like their concerns are being respected and there’s a game plan to rectify the situation. – Basha Rubin, Priori Legal

12. Remain calm

Startups are a cauldron of emotion where the overarching feeling is typically dictated by the founders. All of your team members take their emotional cues from you. So when all hell breaks loose, they will be looking to you to see how to act and feel. Show them there is no need to panic, and remain calm. By showing serenity in the face of emotion, you implicitly tell everyone “It’s going to be OK.” – Brewster Stanislaw, Inside Social