Reader: My employer had a massive yelling fit when I said “Take a breath” to them while they were in the middle of a tirade about the election. They told me I had no right to control how they express themselves and that I wouldn’t get far in life if I couldn’t handle them yelling. They didn’t ask me if they could vent, and I didn’t ask them to share what they were thinking.
I don’t think I’m in the wrong for wanting to have a yell-free workspace, and I feel I am owed an apology. What do you think?
Karla: No, it’s not ludicrous to want a work environment free of yelling. But, like the famous Norman Rockwell portrait of a family Thanksgiving dinner, it’s an ideal that doesn’t always reflect reality.
There’s a pervasive belief in certain industries that getting ahead means absorbing years of abuse without question or protest — that tears are the dues of success and tantrums are but unpolished gems of frustrated genius. That mind-set leads to billionaire CEOs who slash half their workforce, fire anyone who objects for good measure and offer the remaining staff a choice between long, high-intensity hours patching up a sinking ship or a three-month severance packages. Those who stick around, by that reckoning, are the truly dedicated, “hardcore” employees, compelled by a drive to succeed. (As opposed to being compelled by, say, poverty, or the threat of deportation.)
By contrast, thousands of workers during the “Great Resignation” discovered a new road map to success: being able to recognize and walk away from abusive situations. Unemployment is still at record lows, with many employers finding honey superior to vinegar in attracting talent. Empathy, respectfulness and emotional intelligence are hallmarks of leaders for whom people enjoy working.
All of which is to say, your boss’s “you’ll never get far if you can’t take my ranting” line is snort-worthy.
While it’s true you won’t get far trying to teach your boss those skills — “take a breath” ranks up there with “just calm down” and “throwing water on a grease fire” in terms of unsuccessful defusing tactics — that doesn’t mean you have to stand there and endure a high-decibel filibuster.
“This is too stressful for me to listen to. I need to step away” delivered in a neutral tone while backing off is an effective way to disengage. Further pursuit by them at that point is aggression; that’s when you let them pursue you all the way to the human resources office, the security desk or witnesses.
When things have cooled, and all parties appear to be stable, that’s the time to follow up for a debriefing: “I respect your right to have opinions and feelings about current events — I know I do — but I would prefer if we didn’t discuss them at work. Everyone has different viewpoints, and I don’t want to be put in a position of disagreeing or arguing with my boss, especially if it will affect our work relationship.” If you’re up for adding some heat to the honey: “I don’t appreciate being yelled at, especially when it’s not even a work matter.”
A genuinely professional, respectful boss who just occasionally loses perspective will respect your views and may even apologize for unloading on you. If they’re the thin-shelled type who view any pushback as an attempt to seize control — because “control or be controlled” is the only form of interaction they understand — you could end up out of a job. If you suspect the latter scenario is likely, you may want to have a private conversation with HR to let them know your side of things immediately before you have the talk with your boss.
By the way, following up is optional. It’s okay to decide the confrontation isn’t worth the risk to you, or that this incident was a rare seasonal occurrence and future exposure can be managed or avoided — say, by making plans to be elsewhere during the next post-election season.