Karin’s Leadership Articles

Surviving the Moody People in Your Work Life

Maybe it’s a side effect of passion, intensity, or commitment, but some of the most interesting people I know have a moody dark side. Moody people at work are tough to be around. If it’s your boss it’s even trickier. It’s tempting to avoid the mood (and the person who wears it) and just try to survive. But if you can take the EQ high-road, you may find a rich relationship waiting to be forged just below that annoying surface.

5 Ways to Get Past Moody People at Work

1. Find A Safe Way To Talk About It

One of my favorite bosses was one of these moody people at work. She had such highs and lows that her direct report team gave her two almost matching Barbie dolls for her bookshelf. The first was immaculately dressed in typical Barbie fashion, matching shirt, shoes and pearls. The other doll wore ripped clothes, had magic marker on her face, and hair that looked like it had been eaten by a cat. Our request was that she put the doll out that best portrayed her mood as a warning sign. We knew if ‘evil” Barbie was lurking, we laid low.

She accepted the gift with a smile (we chose a “good Barbie day”). She used the dolls strategically for our benefit. More importantly, she got the point when one of us went to her shelf and switched the dolls. Find a safe way to raise the topic.

2. Notice The Patterns

You wouldn’t force your kids to eat peas right after they woke up from a nap. If you’re dealing with moody people, notice the patterns and, whenever possible, choose your timing. I actually had a peer for whom I charted the outbursts to find the discernible pattern. I learned the triggers and timing. Our relationship improved substantially. Don’t screw this up by leaving the chart on your desk.

3. Understand Root Cause

When someone accuses you of being moody, your likely reaction is likely: “Well, I may be a bit tired, or hormonal, or stressed, but the issue is real.” Others feel that way too. It’s likely crankiness could be substantially reduced by addressing the underlying causes.

4. Don’t Reward The Behavior

Don’t coddle. If you succumb to hysterics, the tantrums will continue. Stay calm and suggest another time to discuss the issue. They may be angry if you walk away, but once they cool off, they’ll likely appreciate it (and you).

5. Keep Your Cool

Bad moods wear off, so immunize yourself from these moody people as much as possible. Recognize the behavior for what it is, and don’t take it personally. If it’s really not about you, then let yourself believe that. Of course, this takes us back to number three: be sure you understand your part in the moodiness mix master.

See Also:

How to Deal With Moody Co-Workers

Winning Well: A Manager's Guide to Getting Results Without Losing Your SoulOr our book, Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results– Without Losing Your Soul 

5 Steps to Deal With Difficult Employees

How to Manage a Strong, Arrogant, Slightly Obnoxious High Performer

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt helps human-centered leaders resolve workplace ambiguity and chaos, so that they can drive innovation, productivity and revenue without burning out employees. She’s the founder and CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. She’s the award-winning author of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul and a hosts the popular Asking For a Friend Vlog on LinkedIn. A former Verizon Wireless executive, Karin was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. Karin and her husband and business partner, David Dye, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells – building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.


  1. Ali Anani (@alianani15)

    Karin- watch out as I am moody at this moment! You touch upon a touchy issue. I wonder if we know always the root causes of changing moods. Is is a vague chemistry. I heard many people say I am in a bad mood, but don’t know why. That is why your balanced menu is great. Mood patterns- that is a great idea to think about.
    On a personal level- I keep my negative mood to myself. I isolate myself till I feel better. Know the causes? Not always- I have to admit.

    • letsgrowleaders

      Ali, Thanks as always for your insights. Oh, I’ve got my moods for sure too 😉 It’s all part of being human. Noticing them in ourselves is so important as leaders… and also being open to feedback from others when we can’t see it.

  2. Steve

    When someone is moody, I never take it personally.

    There’s something going on in their life that has nothing to do with me.

    • letsgrowleaders

      Steve, That’s a great approach. Thanks, as always.

    • Matt McWilliams

      Good advice Steve. Thank you!

  3. Matt McWilliams

    “How do you deal with a moody person at work?”

    Not well.

    I’ve got to digest a few of these. I think they are great tips.

    I usually just get annoyed and then fire someone…seriously, it’s one thing I don’t deal with very well for some reason.

    Thanks Karin!

    • letsgrowleaders

      Matt, I know it can be hard… I agree with Steve, stepping away and knowing something else must be going on can really help.

      • Matt McWilliams

        Good point. I think it depends on if it is chronic moodiness or occasional. If it is in-character or out of character for them.

  4. Dallas Tye

    I was at a great seminar on the weekend and we discussed how moods can transfer to others in a team. Maybe its the poor example being set and the ‘what’s ok here’ rules being re-set if it happens enough.

    If its a one-off, no problem. If it’s enough to chart (that’s fantastic Karin) I’d have a go at tackling it head-on, e.g. “your moods are distracting and not helpful”.

    Hopefully before this I’ve been following Karin’s other advice and they’ll know I’m saying this with genuine care for them.

    The danger is, if the person is under extreme stress, they may not even realise they are in a ‘mood’. For those people, they will be thinking its us not them. Still, I’d cross that bridge if I came to it, while holding up my ‘I care about you’ sign. The gift of care can be quite disarming to those receiving it.

    I think the fact that you have recognized you are in a bad mood is fantastic. Regarding knowing why,,, sometimes (not always) I find its not worth dwelling on it,, and just move on or take action like you have.

    • Ali Anani (@alianani15)

      Dallas- thanks for your great feedback. Yes, I fully agree. Mood is a transitional state and soon shall convert to a better one.

    • letsgrowleaders

      Dallas, I’m off to the printer to make “I care about you signs.”

  5. Terri Klass

    I think being aware that a person is moody is half the battle. The other half is protecting yourself against any emotional abuse and just staying calm. It’s crazy that sometimes we allow their moodiness to control us.

    Loved the post and no I am not moody, Karin! You always know where I stand and I tend to be even.

    • letsgrowleaders

      Terri, yeah… I agree…it’s terrible when we let other people’s moods control us.

  6. Bill Benoist

    This is one of the more significant challenges I face as a remote worker. I’m 500 miles away from my direct manager so our meetings are mainly phone calls. Most of the time it’s great but he can be moody and I never know what to expect when I answer the call.

    I too have a doll for my manager. But it’s on my end and I sometimes jab it with pins 🙂

    • Anonymous

      Why pins? why not in Japanese style with sticks! No body is peeping!

    • letsgrowleaders

      Bill, I’ve worked for remote bosses and been a remote leader for years. I agree it’s so much harder from a distance… you can’t really know everything that’s going on, and it’s harder to understand the nuances. I think not taking it personally is even more vital in such circumstances… and also getting face to face from time to time, and using those opportunities to forge a deeper relationship.

  7. Marcus Hurt

    Good post. If you do find the pattern you can mark it in your calendar.

    • letsgrowleaders

      Marcus, thanks. Anything that helps you feel more empowered to cope with it more proactively is great.

  8. Sam @ Sandler

    Great tips! I always am calm whenever someone is being irrational with me or is just in a bad mood. It takes years of learning but once you mastered it your life becomes a lot easier! Great post!

    • letsgrowleaders

      Sam, Thanks so much. It’s hard to beat a good calm.

  9. LaRae Quy

    Loved the visual image of the barbie dolls!

    A great illustration of the importance of emotional intelligence in recognizing the moods of other people…and our own!

    Great post!

  10. Bonnie Mann, CPA (@bonniemann)

    “Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.” – Aristotle

    Sometimes moodiness is the inability to express an anger or frustration. Or maybe the desire not to. Either way these things build up and can make a person very moody. I used to work for a man that did this on a regular basis. We learned that in order to avoid the worst of his moods we needed to give him an outlet to express those frustrations. Once given the chance to vent those issues his mood would improve a great deal. Eventually he learned to be more vocal about the issues as these came up and there was less moodiness overall.

    • letsgrowleaders

      Bonnie, Such an important point. It’s easy to write people off as “moody” who may really have something very important to say… it’s so important to get underneath that. It’s not easy, but worth it.

  11. bill holston

    another great discussion. And by the way, I so enjoy all of you contributors.
    I’ve reflected on this all day. I don’t think I’m moody, but what I do have to guard against are the patterns which I see in how I emotionally respond to others. In particular when someone is negative about new ideas or initiatives, I have to avoid the emotional response of irritation, anger and moodiness. I need to choose to remain positive and constructive.


    • letsgrowleaders

      Bill, That’s such an important extension of this discussion. We also need to recognize or triggers and levels of tolerence. Our fuse may be shorter in certain arenas… i know that’s an ongoing challenge for me. Great add.

  12. Lisa Hamaker

    For me, like many others, the key is NOT to take it personally–it almost never is. That really helps me to stay calm or not engage.

    I love the tip about finding a safe way to talk about it, even if it’s not as formal as your Barbie dolls. When something is named it looses much of it’s power. The minute another person says (in a non-judgemental way), “I can see this is not the best time”, most moody people will relax.

    Often the person I am judging as mad is really being passionate. For me, changing the definition makes it easier handle, perhaps it’s because it’s easier to let go of the worry they are mad at me. 😉

    If I am stuck in a situation with a moody (or worse) person, it helps to visualize a glass wall between myself and the other person. I can still see and hear everything, participate if I choose, but have something to relax behind.

    • letsgrowleaders

      Lisa, I so love the idea of the glass wall… protection and awareness… beautiful. You also raise an important point about misconstrued passion… yes, yes… that’s so often the case. Thanks for expanding the conversation.

  13. Jon Mertz

    Seeing if it is a pattern is key point. Everyone has a bad day from time to time. But, the worst thing a leader can do is to ignore a trend and not address the behavior. Using empathy along with focusing on the issue to be resolved will be key skills to apply. Solid points offered in your post and the comments. Thanks, Karin!


    • Karin

      Jon, Thanks so much. You’re right, we all have a bad day from time to time. I’m on a (very delayed) train from NJ right now… trying to feel jolly 😉 Reading comments helps.

  14. David Tumbarello

    A ton of replies! What a conversation! Karin — I like how you begin the article with the words “passion, intensity, commitment”. I read that and stopped right away to reflect that the words we use to frame the behavior of someone else is so important. Even the most empathetic person on the Earth will never know exactly what it is to be in another person’s shoes. So we are left with what we observe — and then approximate words to label the person and the behavior. The words we use go a long way to informing how we feel and react to that person. As some wise soul said to me many times last year, “Be curious” about another person’s behavior. Being curious is a neutral response to a behavior we don’t understand.

    • Karin

      David, That’s GREAT advice… “stay curious” about another person’s behaviore. I’m using that. Terrific add. Thank you!

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