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How do I supervise two emotional, power-playing ‘yellers’?

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Question: "I am a new front desk supervisor in a small town hospital. Two admissions associates constantly make power plays to keep ahead of one another. I have spoken to each individually. Two weeks ago, I had them sign an agreement stating they would follow a specific set of standards for appropriate workplace behavior. But then I had to bring them together to air out some new issues. This meeting turned into an emotional yelling match.  I told them future infractions would result in disciplinary action. HR referred me to my director who is unavailable to help. Can anyone suggest what to do when this comes up again?" —Not a referee

See Comments Below.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Sharon August 3, 2011 at 12:08 pm

Several years ago I was in the same situation and I ended up taking them to a seminar I had attended earlier called Assertive Communication Skills for Women, it really helped them understand the others points of view and how to communicate without all the yelling

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Starlet July 28, 2011 at 3:21 pm

The fact that you had them sign an agreement stating they would follow a specific set of standards for appropriate workplace behavior means that this should be a binding document for disciplinary action. What is appropriate and legal for that depends on the laws and regulations of your local area/state.

When I had to deal with a situation within my team, I told them to stick to the facts and that their emotions and personal feelings had no place in determining how they should conduct themselves in the workplace. I also told them that if they were unable to contain themselves during the discussion, I would terminate their employment on the spot as I had no time, energy, or patience to deal with their emotional outbursts. I went back to how their personal feud was disruptive and unprofessional and was causing other problems with their colleagues. In my case, both workers were suspended without pay and lost their monthly bonuses. Once they returned to work, they were transferred to different teams and placed on different schedules at the request of the rest of my team and with the approval of HR, but again, I do not know if that would work for your situation.

Good luck!

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DeeCee July 28, 2011 at 11:13 am

That is not appropriate behavior in the workplace. There are acceptable ways to voice concerns, and there are unacceptable ways. Sit them down and go over this again, with the understanding that inappropriate communication will not be tolerated. Lay out the rules and the consequences for breaking the rules.
Having said that, did you listen to what their concerns were? What is each of them upset about? Ariel is right – there are probably deeper issues going on here. Are their concerns legitimate? People like to know they have a voice and are being heard. If they don’t feel they are being heard, they may start yelling in frustration in order to present their side of the story. You may not be able to make them both happy in all their concerns, but if they know you have heard them, empathize with their concerns, and will do whatever you can to fix the problem and accomodate legitimate issues, they should be easier to manage. Honest communication is frequently the answer to the problem.

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Anne July 27, 2011 at 11:46 am

I would talk to each person separately to give them some homework to do during their time-out (day off with or without pay): Assume that this behavior is rooted in defensiveness or some feeling of threat. Find out your motivation/need. What is it that you think you are losing? Are you really losing it? Is there another way? Why are you feeling threatened? How are you contributing to the situation?

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LHeiser July 25, 2011 at 9:35 am

First and foremost, I would write a very basic rule sheet for this meeting – no speaking when another is speaking, no yelling, finger pointing, etc. Prior to this meeting, each would receive the rules and be required to adhere to them for the entire meeting. Consequences for not following the rules need to be clearly stated prior to the meeting’s start so there are no surprises to anyone.

Any person that does not follow the rules should be asked to step out of the meeting and regroup. Once calm, they may return and participate as a professional. Once troubled employees see that you are serious about the meeting remaining on a professional level, attitudes will change and progress will be made on the issue.

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Ariel July 24, 2011 at 11:13 pm

I’d also look for the root cause of the very emotional issues going on here and whether management has any ownership as well. Usually when people are this upset, there is far more to it and other mitigating issues at hand. Something has occurred which has these two people thinking they are on separate teams. I would address that and also create a process which is aimed at re-orienting their perspective in that regard and to team building which reinforces that they ARE on the same team. I would probably create a special assignment that they must work on together closely and the perspective that the work product will give them high exposure. I’d kick off the process with standard team building processes and the get to know each other (at the human level) stuff. Then have them complete an assignment together with my assitance. My role would be to give praise and encouragement on direction – and a little mediation.

Assigment ideas…A survey process of the admissions function to gain feedback from customers on the process and then have the two come up with ideas to improving the process/experience which would be implemented and with joint/shared rewards (which can be as simple as a letter from the President) for a positive outcome. Anything geared at getting them on the same team. – Good luck

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Holly Hoffman July 24, 2011 at 8:32 pm

Unless you have your manager’s support, I would do nothing but document everything.

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Debbie July 22, 2011 at 3:17 pm

What? This is childish behavior and should not be tolerated in the workplace. Managers and HR should be involved and maybe they should be put on administrative probation until they can learn to do their jobs or hit the road. Document, document, document. Make sure there is a paper trail.

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Lisa July 22, 2011 at 3:06 pm

I would do 2 things simultaneously.

1) Begin to implement a performance improvement plan for each employee. You have already covered appropriate workplace behavior, so let the employee know that 3 violations mean they are out. Document a specific violation that has occurred since you discussed the policy. Write it down, have them sign it and have your supervisor or HR sign it, and put it in their files. And go back to HR before doing this – they can’t blow this off, not if they don’t want the hospital to get sued, and they will let you know if the hospital has some other policy for disciplinary issues or if you can go ahead with this one.

2) Meanwhile, if you want to see either of these employees succeed, and you want to be a mentoring supervisor, then meet with each employee individually to help him/her strategize on a way to better deal with his/her emotional issues (such as taking a short break when things feel heated or moving their work to an empty conference room for the day, whatever fits in your workplace). And/or you could recommend a book or a seminar on self-control.

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Mary Lou July 22, 2011 at 2:48 pm

Well, if they were my children, I’d separate them and send them to bed without dinner. Ooophs – these are two supposed adults in a work environment acting like children! I would make it clear that both their behavior and approach to working together is unacceptable to you – and instruct them to come up with what their plan is to address this nonsense. Give them a time when they can accomplish writing up this plan and presenting it to you. They can either come up with a plan in accordance with your deadline, and follow through…or they can check the classifieds. Small town or not – there are plenty of people out there who are willing to learn the requirements of just about any position and would embrace the opportunity to work again.

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JoAnn P July 22, 2011 at 2:20 pm

Were there any clauses regarding violations of the policies? Most companies will at least issue a record of discussion/written warning. I would think a few days suspension without pay would provide a much-needed reality check for those two.

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