November 7th, 2023

As a business owner or manager, not only is it your job to help your team celebrate the victories and successes that they experience but it is also imperative that you are able to recognize when a team member is out of sorts and struggling in their current position. And how you approach that conversation can make a huge difference in the outcome for all parties involved. So today I wanted to address how to have an adult conversation with an employee who is acting out of character.

Unusual Behavior

Let’s say that Jim, who has been a valuable part of your team, did something that’s really unlike him. He sent an inappropriate and unnecessarily harsh email to another team member, Wendy. Jim is normally a thoughtful and deliberate person and has a great working relationship with the others on the team. So his email was completely out of character.

Help Me Understand

Wendy was in tears after reading the email and came to your office to complain about Jim, or at least to vent for a moment.

This behavior definitely warrants an adult conversation, but how you approach it matters. In this instance, I would use a language pattern called “help me understand.” Here’s how that conversation with Jim would play out:

“So Jim, I want to start off by saying that you’ve been a valued team member here at Acme Inc. We’ve been working together now for four and a half years. You’re someone who has always in the past behaved with courtesy and civility to other people. I saw an email that you sent over to Wendy. Matter of fact, she came into my office in tears. That email included things like how she ‘completely mishandled the situation,’ and that ‘She was the worst project lead that you’ve ever worked with in your four and a half years with the company.’ Now, as you can imagine, she was upset. She felt belittled. She felt small. She felt disrespected. And essentially, you burned a relationship that matters in the company. This isn’t like you. You know, Jim, this is so out of character for you. Tell me what’s going on? Help me understand because this is so unlike you.”

And Now You Listen

And now you stop and you let Jim talk. And then when he is done, take a moment to reflect back on his words and then reiterate what he said to make sure that you got all the details. In this case, there was a lot going on behind the scenes that you would never know about if you didn’t take the time to have an adult conversation with Jim. So you might respond with something like this:

“So what I’m hearing is that you had just gotten a heads up that your mom has taken a turn for the worst. You got notice from your sister that she’s now in the final stages of hospice, and you were just really upset. And in that state, that’s when you sent the email. I can understand that happening, but can you see why that is just not OK in this situation here? Jim, if you have something come up that puts you in that emotional state, what’s a better way to handle that? Yeah, you need to step out for a moment. If you need to, take half a day off or a personal day. You tell me, and we’ll cover for you. You matter around here. You make a difference. So now we need to get clear on where we go from here. First of all, you need to mend fences with Wendy. May I encourage you to let her know what happened earlier that day? And I think you really need to acknowledge with her that what you did was not OK. It was out of bounds, and while you had a personal situation come up, you never should have taken it out on her. Let her know that you see that you did and you are truly sorry. Own that and ask her what you can do to make that situation better. Can you do that? Great. I really appreciate you making the time to talk this through. I know this stuff is difficult to do, but it matters and you matter, as does Wendy. Thank you.”