Their Anger Isn't Your Emergency

pain points people May 31, 2024

Recently, a project manager on my team and I both received phone calls from an upset team member.

We both run our projects in such a way that minimizes how often this type of interaction happens, but even the best project manager can’t prevent all conflict or all situations that might make a stakeholder angry. (And sometimes, for the sake of team-building and honest collaboration, it’s best to allow and work through conflict rather than prevent it.)

So when a stakeholder comes to you upset, what do you do? Obviously the details of your response will vary by situation. But after reflecting on my recent experience, I identified the core elements of my response that are likely to be effective most of the time. If you keep these elements top of mind, they will also help you navigate a flurry of stakeholder emotion while keeping your own emotions and your work on track.

DO listen to their concerns and empathize.

A human-centered approach to project management is important. In moments when someone comes to you upset, you’re dealing with a human being who is struggling in some way, so offer the kindness of a listening ear. Validate their feelings. You can also possibly validate some of their decisions or actions IF you genuinely agree with them or find them understandable.

Giving an upset person an opportunity to share and feel heard is not only a kind thing to do, but it can help de-escalate their emotions, which can help them move on to being a part of the solution to whatever their problem is. (It is NOT strictly speaking your responsibility to let any upset person dump on you; do have healthy boundaries and take care of yourself. But when you’re up for listening and empathy, it’s kind and helpful.)

Also, between emotions, the upset person is probably sharing project information you need to know. So listen for those nuggets, taking note of the genuine project considerations you’ll need to address.

DON’T over-promise or over-share.

Just as important, though, is what you DON’T do when someone comes to you in a heightened emotional state.

Don’t let yourself be pressured into promising any particular response in the moment. “I hear you—I am going to work on a solution and get back to you” is a valid response to give you the time you need to sort out what actions are genuinely your responsibility in the situation. If you do immediately feel confident in some appropriate actions you’ll take to address their concerns, you can share a little. But definitely err on the side of promising less until you have the space to make good decisions, very likely with the input of others.

If the person is upset about a situation and you have private information about the situation that they don’t, resist the urge to share just to make them feel better. Only share information you’re very confident is appropriate for sharing. If you share too much, you’ll just have another mess to clean up later.

Also, be sure you don’t participate in gossip about other stakeholders and be sure to kindly shut down or redirect gossip if you realize that’s what your stakeholder is doing. Discuss other coworkers in a way that puts the best construction on their actions and gives them the benefit of the doubt. Limit your discussion of poor choices or actions by coworkers to what is absolutely necessary to solve project and business problems, with the fewest people necessary in the conversation—and the moment when someone is upset is almost always the wrong timing for this type of discussion.

DON'T second-guess your decisions or re-prioritize your work based on their emotions alone.

My most significant insight in light of my recent experience with an upset team member is the title of this blog post: their anger isn’t your emergency.

Yes, if possible, drop what you’re doing for just a little bit to care about them as a person, listen, and give them some empathy.

But just because they’re UPSET doesn’t mean YOU did anything WRONG. Don’t let someone else’s anger automatically fling you into self-doubt. I encourage you to believe in yourself and start with a mindset of confidence in your decisions or actions. Many instances of anger come from misunderstanding. You can apologize if you’re sure you made a mistake, but don’t over-apologize. You can reflect later on whether their words contain some valid feedback for you to consider. But in the moment, hold your emotional ground and trust yourself.

The other major temptation is to make solving their problem your top priority simply because of their emotional outburst, as though their emotions were some kind of priority meter. Occasionally they might be upset about something that is a true project emergency with high impact that needs an immediate solution. But don’t start with that assumption. Take a step back, remind yourself of all the good reasons you were prioritizing your work the way you were before, and address their concerns on a timeline that still respects all your other important work and projects.  

Those are all the ways I make the best of emotional conversations with project stakeholders: listen and offer empathy, be careful what I say or promise in the moment, and hold firm in the belief that I most likely made good decisions for my project, even though this stakeholder became upset.

Have these tools ready for when you get your next upset stakeholder phone call, and you too will make it through just fine.


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