Leadership Explosion – Tough Teamwork People Skills Moment

There’s an old expression that I recently heard again, “Don’t walk into the middle of a firing squad.”

Leader Explosion & Tough Teamwork People Skills Moment Image:Nathan & Jenny

Have you ever been in a room with other team members when the leader explodes with disapproval at some of them but not you?  What was your reaction?  How did you feel?  Did you say anything?  Did your decision affect your subsequent teamwork?

Would you say anything if you agreed with the substance of the leader’s comments?  Would you if you disagreed with the substance of the leader’s comments?  A leadership explosion and your reaction can present a tough teamwork and people skills (soft skills) moment.

As I thought about this, I remembered a time in graduate school when something like this happened.  The professor was a gruff old curmudgeon.  Perhaps he believed that being rough produced better learning.  I didn’t agree yet his gruff manner didn’t bother me.  He was fair in grading, clear when he taught, and didn’t play favorites or games behind your back. I wouldn’t want him over for a fun party yet I could deal with his teaching a couple of courses.

For one assignment he had us in separate teams of 4, each developing a project for presentation to the whole class. It was presentation night. The first team up was totally unprepared and did a miserable job. It truly seemed they had put very little effort into it and we learned very little. The professor lit into them for their poor job. They looked stunned. Silence. Then Pat, a student in the audience, started to make tangible suggestions on how the presentation could improve. Billy, one of the students on the presentation team, tore Pat apart verbally. Later without the professor present, Billy made verbal threats that he would get even with Pat’s team during their presentation.

Do you think Pat made the right decision to speak or did Pat walk into the middle of a firing squad? Would you speak at all and if so what would you say? Would you be concerned about repercussions from the leader or the team members?

It would be ideal if the professor had used less emotion to reduce the team’s emotional reaction. Yet in business there are times when the leadership explodes in frustration over poor performance, missed opportunities, and resistance to change. At the same time it is very difficult for some people to think clearly and logically when they feel under attack. Pat was not attacking Billy. The tone was positive and forward focused. Yet Billy couldn’t see that in the heat of emotion. It is quite possible that he was dumping the anger he felt toward the professor onto Pat. So what would you do?

Some possible approaches:

  1. Wait for the leader or those under attack to say something so you can read their emotional states before responding.
  2. Ask those under attack if they are ready for suggestions on how to make it better and offer to jump in and help.
  3. Ask the leader if you might lend perspective on how to make things better or for a short break so that all can gather their thoughts.

Do any of these make sense to you? What are the pros/cons? Perhaps some other approach?

Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach, works on tough teamwork, people skills (soft skills), and issues of interpersonal dynamics in corporations and government agencies. See http://katenasser.com.customers.tigertech.net for workshop information.

22 Responses to “Leadership Explosion – Tough Teamwork People Skills Moment”

  1. Kate: While each situation is diferent, I have found that suggestions, even with the best intentions, that are offered in the heat of a moment are often misconstrued. Suggesting a break or time out so that emotions can cool down is often helpful. Then, during that time out, you can take a moment to offer support privately and see if it will be welcomed before the session reconvenes.

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Lots of truth in what you say Joan. I think asking the leader if a break is a possibility may work quite well. There is one risk that the leader takes it as an indirect challenge to his/her authority. Tough moment for sure.

  2. Steve Browne says:

    Kate – this situation is never easy. You list some really viable options. I have found that you should remain consistent and calm in emotionally turbulent situations. I don’t think an outburst makes someone less lf a leader because everyone may hit a breaking point. However, it’s a great opportunity to coach the leader after the situation to ask them how they would handle themselves and the people they were angry at differently if they had the chance to do it again. Also, you could address the leader and the team members on what each others expectations are in this team. Great post and something we should all know how to respond when it happens.

  3. An interesting situation and one that, all too frequently, is realistic. In the classroom scenario, I’d have been tempted to push back…or shove back… at the moment of the verbal assault. That’s not usually the productive approach. Based on my background in pastoral care, I’d ask for a recess and approach the leader with the idea of helping him process the emotion to find the underlying cause. With that release and knowledge, perhaps the meeting could resume with an apology and a renewed sense of trust.

  4. Kate, I have a maxim and I don’t remember exactly where I first heard it, but unrequested advice is _always_ received as criticism. I’ve learned to ask if people want feedback. Many, especially those that know they have done a poor job, do not.

  5. Wally Bock says:

    Interesting post, Kate. While I agree with Mike that unrequested advice is received as criticism, I think that a key insight is Joan’s leader: “every situation is different.” There’s no one answer because the best course of action depend on variables that go outside the specific incident. The history and culture of the group matter. So does the purpose. The culture of the group matters a lot, too.

    That said, the instructor’s action raised the emotional temperature in the room. I’m assuming that “lit into them” implies a lot of energy. Until that energy has some time to subside, you’re at risk that every exchange becomes emotionally charged.

    Billy probably dumped adrenaline and went into “fight or flight” mode as he was being attacked. The little furry forest creature that lives in Billy’s (or my) midbrain can’t tell the difference between an abusive instructor and a saber-toothed tiger. It’s a threat. It’s real. It demands a response.

    It takes a hour to two hours for the chemicals that cause that reaction to process out of the system. Since you’re in a classroom situation, the only really effective way to deal with the explosion is to let everyone go and pick up the discussion next time. I’m betting that didn’t happen.

    In a workplace situation, you have other options. You can disband and come back later. If you’re in charge, you can offer a structured review method, that switches the brain from emotion to logic and calms things down.

    I think the big learning point here is that the situation went to hell when the instructor lost his own control. After that, everything was fire fighting and damage control.

  6. First I would have to ask the leader if their original instructions to the team had been clear and concise. I would also ask the leader if they had explained to each member of the team what their role was and what the expectations were for that member. If they had explained to the team as a whole what the time line was, what the expectations were and what was considered a successful result.
    Then if the team failed I would expect a tirade from the leader, although it still may not be totally justified. What I mean by that is did the leader follow up during the process? Did they make sure the team had all the tools and information needed to be successful. Were they open to team inquiries or request for assistance?
    In reality most leaders do not perform as they should, instead they give a vague explanation of what they expect and leave it at that.
    SO in your classroom example I must ask, did the professor provide clear instructions as to what he would be looking for in a presentation or did he just assume everyone knew? Did he provide what his expectations would be from the students? Or did he fail in his duties to do so?
    I agree with Mike Henry Sr. in that even though the person has good intentions unrequested feedback may not be taken in a good light. The timing of it can be critical. To do it right after someone has been publicly blasted in the wrong time as it will surely be taken as adding fuel to the fire. Wait until the fire has stopped smoldering and then ask if they would be willing to hear some suggestions.

  7. Jim Morgan says:

    I like your and the other commenters’ suggestions, Kate, so I will focus instead on the underlying psychology. Two terms came to mind as I read this scenario: cognitive dissonance and transference. The former is the mental tension created when new information clashes with one’s beliefs. Billy believed the presentation was acceptable and that he was a person beyond the professor’s style of reproach. Hearing the professor say it wasn’t acceptable, especially in the way he did, created dissonance. The brain resists changing its beliefs, so it goes through some well-researched tactics to relieve the dissonance without having to change.

    An early step it tries is to discredit the information source, but his couldn’t because the source was his professor. Fortunately for his brain, another route presented itself in the form of another source. The brain transfers the “discrediting” to the new person who does not have the professor’s level of credibility, along with the anger that dissonance creates in Billy due to his personality filters.

    It’s easy to see why taking a break and/or asking if Billy wanted feedback both work to protect the third parties in the room. The break allows Billy’s brain time to either resolve dissonance another way or work through some of the initial anger without transference. Asking permission might still get a curt response, but gives Billy back some of the power that was just stripped from him.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking thoughts, Kate.

    • Kate Nasser says:

      I believe you are spot on with your assessment of cognitive dissonance and transference. Here’s the ironic part of this — the course of study was (drum roll please) … organizational psychology. We were actually studying the very things you note here. And there it was playing out in front of my eyes.

      Thanks for your contribution here. Valuable insight.

  8. Mike and Jim… Thanks for your thought provoking provoking perspectives, and for something to chew on this morning!


  9. Jane Perdue says:

    Kate –
    Thanks for a thought-provoking piece – love all the rich comment input.

    While I’m all for addressing the elephant in the room, timing is everything. As several individuals have already pointed out, when people are in an adversarial, emotional state, thoughtful leaders have to recognize that that’s NOT the moment to offer feedback.

    The behavioral dynamics of this situation are repeated all too often in the workplace: the person in charge who fails to establish ground rules or work parameters and who is emotionally self-unintelligent; a team member on the receiving end of unwelcome criticism who redirects the frustration to another team member; and another colleague who wants to help yet is tone-deaf in recognizing what is/isn’t the opportune moment. What a great case study!

    With a smile,

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Thank you Jane and everyone for your thought filled comments. This case study is full of learning opportunities as you, Jane, so clearly pointed out. Self-awareness and EQ of leaders, team members learning how to handle emotional criticism directed at them, other team members honing their “timing” skills.

      If any of you know of venues to publish this case study for universities to use, please let me know.

      I appreciate all your input and time.

  10. Timing is everything. After “the professor lit into them for their poor job,” it is unlikely any feedback would have been received with anything but defensiveness. So Pat, with the best of intentions, had a totally different impact than intended.

    We all know that this happens quite often–intent does not equal impact.

    In this case, I believe it was okay for Pat to speak up, yet with another message–“I have some ideas about how you might do things even better next time. If you’d like to talk with me about them, I’d love to share them with you all when you’re ready.”

    As has been stated in other comments, feedback is best received when permission has been granted.

    Great thought-provoking post, Kate!

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Ava – Love your point about intent does not equal impact. That is true in life as well as in work (customer service, teamwork, etc…) I have wanted to write this case study up for awhile and so glad so many of you have found it a valuable learning tool.

      Best and thanks,

  11. Susan Young says:

    Hi Kate,
    Great post with interesting points on teamwork and communication. I am with Wally Bock and Mike on unsolicited advice being taken as criticism. Understanding various communication styles and “obeying the spur of the moment” as Thoreau said is important as each situation, personality and dynamic is different. I tend to look for similarities and not differences, always trying to bridge communication gaps. Above all, I remind myself that not every statement requires a response. Know when to speak up and know when to shut up.


  12. Kate Nasser says:

    The trend in these comments seems to be — say nothing in this scenario because giving unsolicited advice would be seen as criticism. Sounds logical. There are those that would not be agreeing with the comments above.

    Others would ask: Would upper management agree and think these silent moments productive? Or would they claim that the goal of producing the end result is more important than worrying about people’s hurt feelings? Strong driver personalities would likely claim this.

    Where is the balance? I tend to believe that deep scars change the way people work (for the worse) and damage the future success of the team. Team success is impacted by emotion. Here’s a tweet I put out earlier today with a link to an article: “What Do We Know About Science of Team Success? Emotion Matters! http://bit.ly/agZk5O Journal of Applied Psychology.

  13. Pam Wyess says:

    Reminds me of one of those “What Would You Do” episodes with John Quiones on ABC. What do the witnesses do? My take: It’s not my place to insert myself into the equation by making any comments–to the team or to the professor. Pat may have been trying to refocus attention to a positive discussion–or he/she may have been trying to upstage Billy and team by being offering ‘constructive criticism.’ Whatever the reason, Pat didn’t need to save the day (or Billy) or shine the spotlight on him/herself.

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Hi Pam,
      Good one about “What Would You Do” episodes! Never thought of that when I was writing the post LOL.

      What you might find interesting is that I did talk to Pat after the explosion. The intent was positive yet as Ava pointed out intent does not equal impact.

      You might all want to check out Dan Rockwell’s (LeadershipFreak) post today about “How to Disagree”. Excellent points on preventing explosions. http://bit.ly/bvJp79


  14. Kate,

    Ring the bell!!! Another great post.

    So back to the bell. These situations remind of a boxing match. The fighters either prepare diligently or halfheartedly. They enter the ring and sometimes one of the boxers is left being knocked around and down. But the trainers and coaches know the fighter has to grow and learn from the experience.

    I believe the same holds true in professional settings. Sometimes people need to be “in the ring” to learn more about themselves. And as leaders we need to allow them to grow. We encourage, share, and teach the person how to handle these situations. Maturity, professionalism, and personal growth are all added into your personal skill set.

    Wonderful post and thanks for always being so thought-provoking.

    Brock Patterson

  15. skip bieber says:

    My first thought was “is that leader a friend?” then when I thought about it some more, I probably would have tried for a short-break if we were in the business world. From my painful experience, it doesn’t matter if its a supervisor or a professor ripping into them – the “ripper” has a spur under their saddle and I doubt anything would sooth it. And the “ripee” would be defensive and short tempered. Afterwards, I would seek out the ripped leader/team and see how they recovered and see what I can do – bad mood people can be contagious!

    Either way, – my “old school” training would kick in – “Thou shall never reprimand/butt chew a supervisor in front of their subordinates”

    as for the “what would I do” episode? I’d like to think I’d be one suggesting a break or anything that would end that session as fast as possible – even if its keeping quite.

    another great post kate!

  16. Kate Nasser says:

    Skip – You made me chuckle a bit with your phrase “ripper and rippee”. Beyond the chuckle, I do think offering to help the team recover shows your empathy and caring. Bravo.

    Brock – You raise an excellent and interesting question with your statement about being in the ring. “Sometimes professionals need to be in the ring to learn about themselves.” Question is: How best to strengthen your team to be in the ring and learn to take criticism?

    Thank you both for your comments!

  17. Liam says:

    Hi K8

    This was a great one!

    One of your respondents summed it up when saying ‘every case is different’.

    I certainly think that if a group produces a poor presentation, the trainer shouldn’t necessarily be so emotional in his comments when he is giving feedback. The presentation might not be too good, but suppose the other 3 were also poor quality, is that then the fault of the students or the fault of the trainer for not explaining what he wanted.

    I had a similar experience about a year ago with a manager who got upset because we didn’t do what he wanted, because his instructions were so vague that we didn’t understand. Because he was in a position fo power, no one dared stand up to him to tell him about his instructions.

    In such a situation, the other student who also gace feedback to the team being criticism certainly added fuel to the fire. The problem there could also be a cultural one. The professor was seen as a figure of authority who developed and maintained an adversarial relationship with his students. The student who publicly criticised his fellow students in the class effectively supported the professor. In many cultures, when authority is adversarial, a ‘prison yard’ mentality develops among the people being supervised and any agreement with the person in authority is seen as collaboration, not contribution. I too would also not make any comment at that moment to avoid being seen as a ‘collaborator’. If I had done this at my school when I was young, i would have faced immediate consequences.

    Ultimately, the professor’s adversarial style created this lack of trust and ‘prison yard’ style conflict. This is a great example of how a leader by his or her behaviour can create a real culture that is completely at variance with what is printed on the HR brochures.

KateNasser on Facebook KateNasser Blog KateNasser on Twitter KateNasser on LinkedIn KateNasser on Pinterest