Let's face it, work can be stressful. Whether the stress comes from your boss, your co-workers, or your workload, the pressure can get to be too much. After one particularly frustrating meeting, you blow up at a colleague and lose your temper.
You might just want to chalk it up to a bad day and move on, pretending that nothing happened. But others likely won't be so quick to forget. As Roy Baumeister wrote in his classic article "Bad Is Stronger Than Good," negative experiences are processed more thoroughly than good ones, and negative impressions are quicker to form and harder to get rid of than positive ones. To recover from something like this, you'll need to approach the situation with humility and intention. Here's how to proceed:
BE HONEST WITH YOURSELF. The first step is to take an honest look at yourself. Was this a one-time experience, or is this something that you've done on multiple occasions? If losing your temper is truly not the norm for you, people who have an established history with you will likely see it as something that was caused by situational factors. In that case, a sincere apology may be enough. However, if it's something you do on a regular basis, you'll have a much steeper road ahead of you in terms of rehabilitating your reputation.
APOLOGISE. Ideally, you'll do this as soon as possible after the occurrence, so you can lessen the amount of time that others might be stewing about it and discussing it with colleagues. According to research by Roy Lewicki, Beth Polin, and Robert Lount, effective apologies have six components:
• An expression of regret
• An explanation of what went wrong
• An acknowledgement of responsibility
• A declaration of repentance
• An offer of repair
• A request for forgiveness
The researchers found that the more of these components included, the more favourably others responded to the apology. However, not all aspects of the apology were equally important. They found that the most critical component was acknowledging responsibility. Therefore, when you apologise for your blowup, own what you did. Don't rationalise or make excuses. Be sincere in admitting that your behaviour was wrong.
The second most important component of the apology was the offer of repair. Therefore, explain what you're going to do to make up for it. For instance, if you blew up publicly at someone, you could make sure to apologise to them, and then apologise in the next meeting when all parties who witnessed it are together. Or, you could explain the steps you're going to take to avoid having that happen again in the future.
For example, if you notice that you tend to get testy when your days are over-scheduled, you can make a commitment to doing a better job of managing your workload, or taking more breaks. If you have a tendency to get defensive, you might choose to give others permission to gently point out when you're being less receptive to their perspectives. Or, if you really have a hard time managing your temper, you could promise to work with a coach to develop strategies to help you to gain greater control over your reactions. Then, make sure to do it. After all, if you keep exhibiting the same behaviour over and over, your apologies are going to become meaningless.
FIGURE OUT WHAT TRIGGERED YOUR BLOWUP. To reduce the odds of losing your temper in the future, you'll want to identify the factors that contributed to it. Do you need to do a better job of managing your stress overall? Do you tend to lash out when you feel attacked or vulnerable? Are there specific people who frustrate you? Were there personal issues that trickled over into work that made you more on edge?
For example, if you realise that you get upset when you feel others are attacking you, you can shift your perspective and recognise that diverse opinions help teams solve problems more effectively. If you notice that your emotions can get the best of you in a tense moment, you can practice deep breathing when you feel yourself tensing up, so that you can calm your body and think more clearly in the moment.
BE CONSISTENT. If you want others' perceptions of you to shift, you'll need to demonstrate a more even temperament on a consistent basis. This is important, because due to confirmation bias, we tend to be more likely to recognise others' behaviours that confirm our beliefs about them, as opposed to those that are at odds with them. What this means is that if you're seen as a hothead, people will be much more likely to notice the one time you shouted and cursed at your colleague, as opposed to all the other meetings this week when you were jovial and charming. Although it might not seem fair, it's what you'll need to do to change others' perceptions of you.
FOCUS ON RELATIONSHIPS. When you have built strong relationships with those around you, they'll be more likely to forgive the occasional misstep. In my consulting work with individuals in organizations, it's not uncommon for me to hear co-workers being much more willing to excuse the odd blowup from a colleague with whom they've built up a lot of social capital.
It's essential to take the time to build genuine relationships with others. As Socrates wrote, "The way to a good reputation is to endeavour to be what you desire to appear." As such, once you've lost your temper, your goal shouldn't just be to change others' perceptions of you; your goal should be to adjust your underlying character, so that the reputation you're striving to achieve, will be a reflection of who you truly are.
BE PATIENT. Finally, although you may have moved on quickly from the incident, others may not have. Therefore, even if you've been on your best behaviour for weeks, realise that it may take more time for others to believe the changes you're exhibiting are real.
I once worked with a client who had difficulty managing her emotions at work. After getting over the shock of receiving feedback that she was seen as rude and volatile, she took it upon herself to change those perceptions. She used active listening techniques, focused on building relationships, started a mindfulness practice and worked on better managing her stress in general. She was making great strides, and feeling proud of herself as a result of her development.
However, one month later, she came to our session frustrated. She wasn't sure that anyone's view of her had changed. This was discouraging to her, given all of the earnest effort that she had been putting into her professional growth. Still, she kept at it, and a few months later, received feedback suggesting that others were appreciating her new approach.
Just as I noted that you'll need to be consistent with your new behaviours, you'll also need to be patient. If people have been experiencing you one way, it will likely take some time for them to a) notice that you've changed your behaviour and b) believe that it's a permanent change. Therefore, try not to get frustrated if it takes longer than you would like for people to recognise the changes you're making. Keep it up, and they'll start to notice.
The reality is, recovering after losing your temper at work can be a challenge. Although transforming others' perceptions of you isn't always an easy task, with consistency, focus and patience, it can definitely be done.
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