Coping with a Meltdown

By Scott Westerman
Few things are more singular than being on the receiving end of a meltdown. We learn to take them in stride when children are involved. We take a deep breath and ride it out when our soul mates “flip a nut”. But what do you do when it happens to your boss?

For three years, I worked for a boss with an anger management problem. His challenge was two fold. On one hand, he was smart. The guy was usually two pages ahead of the rest of us. It was hard for him to wait for the team to catch up. On the other hand, he was passionate about the business. He had trouble reconciling that anyone who worked for him couldn’t have the same focus, dedication and attention to detail that he felt he brought to the table.

He was surrounded on all sides by people who wanted something from him, employees, shareholders, regulators and customers. That alone can contribute to immense stress and influence behavior. Add in a little personality disorder and fireworks could ensue.

Watching him work from a slow burn to an all out rant generated a combination of fascination and terror among his team. When he was on a tear, nobody within his field of vision was safe.

It was one of the most instructive learning experiences of my career and gave me some insights into how to handle a meltdown.

Keep your cool. – Once the horses are out of the barn, you have to let them run. But you don’t have to whip them into a further frenzy. Someone who can keep it together when everybody else is falling apart wins.

Peel back the emotion and look for valid points. – Useful gifts are almost always interspersed amidst the fireworks. Feedback is the breakfast of champions and sometimes the most beneficial vitamins taste bitter. Sort out what’s useful and integrate it into your game plan. Try to toss the rest into the trash.

What else might be going on? – Many, many times in my life, I’ve discovered that what sets people off has little to do with what they are yelling about. We all carry invisible loads on our shoulders that nobody else can see. Sometimes they are too heavy to bear and manifest by amplifying something that’s unrelated to epic proportions.

Don’t take it personally. – It’s just business. We choose a career. That career has success metrics. There are behaviors that can positively impact those metrics. Usually, when we get developmental feedback at high volume, those metrics are out of balance. Take stock of how you’re measuring your own professional progress. Are you and your team delivering enough value? Are you on track to get there? If not, reassess what you need to do to adjust. If so, keep breathing and stay the course.

Decide how and when to fight back. – The middle of a meltdown might not be the best time to make your case. Pick the time and place for your battles. Pull your forces together before you return fire. Take the high road. Acknowledge what’s true. Share how you will deal with it. Correct misconceptions, but do it professionally with facts as a foundation.

Be sensitive to patterns. – If your boss’ behavior happens often, is it directed toward a specific issue or area? Is this something you can impact in a positive way?

Decide when you’ve had enough. – Change the changeable. Accept what you can’t change. These are the two maxims we often hear about life. But there is a very important third dimension: remove yourself from the unacceptable. You are a person of value. If you find yourself in a situation where your boss is incapable of appreciating your work, seek someone else to serve. 90% of people won’t take this third option because it involves deliberate change. Moving outside of an uncomfortable comfort zone is something few will do. Those who can muster the courage to make a change almost always end up in a better situation.

In most cases, you will want to let things cool down before your respond to a meltdown, but there will be moments when you will have to fight back in real time. The challenge is having the wisdom to know what to do and when. Defending yourself in the midst of a high emotion situation is a high risk proposition. In some cases, especially if you work for a bully, you will have to eventually take them on. Be prepared.

In my own encounters with my anger prone boss, I finally determined that he was, in fact, simply a bully. And, no matter how smart or accomplished they may be, I won’t countenance bullies. One day, we ended up having a huge bi-directional meltdown. There was a consensus in the room that I “earned his respect” that day. He didn’t pick on us much after that. But at that same moment, I decided to remove myself from the unacceptable. I stayed around long enough to help our team achieved the goals we set. And then I was gone.