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Do your managers have tantrums?


TantrumsWe all get angry and frustrated sometimes, but how do you handle managers who constantly throw their toys out of the pram? John Pope offers some advice.

A long time ago I was working in an oil refinery and ran a plant where we had to take samples of some very heavy oils, almost tar, called ‘vacuum bottoms’. Rather than use the standard sample cans, we used empty oil cans from the local filling stations. They were just as good, but free and we didn’t have to waste time cleaning them out afterwards, which took ages.

We had an important visit to my plant one day – a senior VP who had flown in from the US. He saw cans from other oil companies, threw a ‘wobbler’ immediately, and sent an assistant to kick over the stack, who then proceeded to stamp on the ‘enemy’ cans. We thought it was funny but waited until he had moved on before laughing otherwise he would have stamped on us.

“A very senior manager in a major bank was reported to have once snapped the pen of a less senior manager because it carried the logo of a rival bank.”

I am reminded of this by reading of the very recent removal of a very senior manager in a major bank who is reported to have once snapped the pen of a less senior manager because it carried the logo of a rival bank.

I also know of two former household names, famed for their entrepreneurial skills, who did similar things to make a point, one of which was smashing two heavy glass ash-trays together at board meetings.

And I am sure we all know managers who, as the phrase is, ‘throw their toys right out of the pram’ when upset.

Why do managers throw tantrums?

I guess managers do this for the same reasons children do; to express frustration, to emphasise something important to them, to get attention, to demonstrate their importance, to bully others into submission or to let off steam. They continue with that sort of behaviour while it seems to get results or until they see that it becomes counter-productive.

Where do they get it from?

Probably their nature and upbringing, together with following the example of managers they saw as effective who behaved like that in the past.

What does it do?

Well, it certainly sets a bad example to follow, and is infectious – it leads to a culture which can easily spill over outside the office and upset customers and staff. Customers can walk away, staff can claim constructive dismissal, both of which can be very expensive.

Managers who lose their temper tend to lose their judgement at the same time, they fail to see important things. I suppose I was lucky in the refinery, there were much more serious issues on my plant which I was concerned about and preferred not to have discussed. As it was, the VP went away happy, doubtless thinking that he had achieved something.

I have seen the results of uncontrolled anger many times when managers were attempting to get a point across. Sometimes that anger has been real, sometimes it was a carefully planned strategy, a pretended display which then got out of control and became real. Usually it ended in metaphorical tears. On one occasion it caused a meeting, which was called to resolve an HR problem – management versus trade union – to end in disorder and cause an immediate stoppage.

What, if anything, can we do about it?

At levels below the most senior, there is some chance of reform. The ‘bully’, for that’s what he or she is essentially, must be made aware of the effects, and probable consequences, and when that is accepted can then be helped to find ways of controlling rage.

“Managers who lose their temper tend to lose their judgement at the same time, they fail to see important things.”

Counselling can be helpful, but progress is likely to be slow. Any improvements must be sustained by a combination of appropriate encouragement and disapproval from more senior managers and colleagues.

At senior level, the reprimand by director or a group of senior colleagues can help, as can public comment if the tantrum gets media attention. The ultimate responsibility lies with the most senior member of the management, when dismissal should be the sanction but without the bribe of a substantial settlement and the well-worn excuse ‘to pursue other interests’.

But if the tantrums are being thrown by the owner or principal shareholder little can be done, though fellow directors can do a little to point out the dangers. A high-profile case for constructive dismissal and the effect on the business’ reputation can do a bit.

Is it important to HR?

Why is this relevant to Well, we are clearly in for a difficult economic time, which, combined with high inflation, the need to keep costs under control, probable short-time working and redundancies are likely to increase conflict in the workplace.

And this is where the skills of managers and those in HR who attempt to resolve disagreements will be even more important and valuable. Perhaps we should refresh our skills in readiness.

Though I doubt if an example I saw recently will be completely valid. A mother in my local supermarket was attempting to calm her small son who wanted something and was working up a real strop. She turned to him sweetly but firmly and said: “Not now dear, you can have your tantrum when we get home,” and he stopped. I don’t know whether that line can be used at work, but if you can’t you might be able to use it on the family. I like the sound of it, as well as the approach.

John Pope has been a management consultant for over 40 years, and has had his own practice as an independent consultant for over 30 years. He continues to advise businesses at senior level on their direction, strategy and especially on the management of change. He can be contacted at [email protected]

One Response

  1. Managers can be more destructive than we give them credit for>
    An excellent article that peels away the patina of acceptability from the behaviour of managers. Their behaviour is destructive and it is often responsible for the problems they are supposed to fix.

    We are shown here managements inability to see the effect their behaviour has on others.
    The VP at the oil refinery has, through his behaviour, guaranteed that he will never be bothered by staff asking for his help sorting out the other more serious issues.
    This makes him feel good because he is not aware of any of their problems and will probably remain happily ignorant until his organisation collapses around him for reasons that he will never understand.
    In effect his behaviour could be responsible for the ruin of many peoples livlihoods.

    Should we continue to be amused by these people or should we be trying to show them the real effect of this kind of behaviour on their business’s.

    Or perhaps should we give some thought to the lesser examples of this kind of behaviour that characterise a traditional approach to management and the effect that it is having on the effectiveness of our industry as a whole.

    Peter A Hunter

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