When your coworker throws temper tantrums and your boss turns a blind eye

Dear Joan:

I have been in my job for several years and enjoy it very much. It is in a creative field and it offers me many opportunities for interesting work and enjoyable surroundings.  

I have been having a problem with one of my co-workers, however, and this is threatening my job satisfaction. My co-worker throws temper tantrums. He throws things, swears, shouts and generally upsets everyone in his path. This really bothers me and I would like to know how to stop it or control it.  

I've gone to our boss about this and his response could be summarized: We all know he has a big ego and we've all know how talented he is so we'll just ignore it.  

It's difficult to work around him because he upsets me so much when he reacts this way. I get flustered and angry myself. Is there any answer to this problem?  

Have you ever watched a toddler throw himself down in a grocery aisle and kick and wail for a box of cookies? I always study the parent when this happens. If they give in to the child I shake my head and mumble something to myself about the bail money they'll need to start saving for bigger tantrums fifteen years from now. If the parent simply ignores the child and walks away, or firmly conveys their disapproval, I smile at the child's good fortune.  

Your boss has given your co-worker many boxes of cookies. You have little hope of changing your co-worker's theatrics since your boss is giving in to keep your talented peer happy. Your co-worker may be using these fits of unacceptable behavior to exercise some power over his boss. Because his boss hasn't challenged it, your peer has probably stepped farther and farther over the line. To pull him back at this point would cause a confrontation your boss isn't willing to risk.

The point is, you can't control his behavior so you'll have to learn to manage your own reaction to it. In fact, pushing this point with your boss could boomerang. You probably aren't the first one to complain about him. Imagine a scenario in the future: Your boss is giving you a job reference and he says to your potential employer, "She's very talented but has difficulty working with some of the heavy hitters with big egos and you know how many of those we have in this business!"  

Wouldn't you rather have him say, "She works extremely well with all different types of personalities, in spite of the fact that some egos here can be tough to work around!"

Here are some ideas to try:

Next time objects fly through the air, simply turn and walk out of the room. When the audience walks away, the behavior may extinguish. If you are working together on a project, and don't want to appear huffy or parental, simply say, "I can see how upset you are. Why don't you come and get me when you want to continue." The key is to keep all emotion out of your voice. If it's dripping with disgust or anger, it will only add fuel to his fire.  

By suggesting that he find you when he's finished fuming, you have put the responsibility on him to collect himself and decide to get back to work. The trick is to detach yourself from him and let him be responsible for his own behavior. Another way to think about it is to change your relationship from parent/child to adult/adult. If you judge his behavior or try to control it, he's likely to react like a child and the cycle will continue.  

If you would like to talk to him about it, I'd suggest that you only speak about your feelings, not whether his actions are right or wrong. For example, you could say, "You probably don't realize this but when you express your anger at work it really upsets me. I get very tense and find I can't concentrate." He may have fallen into this pattern of release and be unaware of the affect he has on those around him.  

Whatever he chooses to do about his anger will have no affect on you, since you will continue to appear competent, cool and effective no matter how many temper tantrums he throws. In the end, it can only work to your advantage.  

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
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