What To Say Next When Your Boss Gets Cranky
Maybe it’s a side effect of passion, intensity, or creativity, but have you ever noticed that many high-achieving managers also have a moody dark side? Moody people are hard to work around. If it’s your boss who is moody, it’s even more challenging. You might feel tempted to avoid your moody boss, keep your head down, and just survive. But that kind of conflict at work is stressful and draining.
Adding Some Levity to the Moody Boss Scene
One of my (Karin) favorite bosses had such highs and lows that we gave her two nearly matching Barbie dolls for her desk. The first was immaculately dressed in typical Barbie fashion, matching shirt, skirt, shoes, and pearls. The other doll had ripped clothes, magic marker on her face, and hair that looked like it had been gnawed by a cat.
We chose a “good Barbie day” to approach her with our plan. The team invited her to use the dolls as a warning sign: to put the doll that best portrayed her mood on a visible shelf. We knew if “evil” Barbie was lurking, we needed to lay low. Not ideal for sure. No one wants a moody boss.
And yet, she accepted the gift with a smile. She used the dolls, as requested, for our benefit. Thankfully she got the point when one of us went to the shelf and switched the dolls. It wasn’t perfect. There were days when even the dolls didn’t help. But what I learned from that experience is that talking with a moody manager (when they’re not in that mood) can go a long way.
Powerful Phrases to Connect with Your Moody Boss
Start by trying to understand and acknowledge the root cause. If your manager is like most humans who are accused of being in a bad mood when they’re justifiably frustrated, they may think, “Sure, I could have left out the F-bombs or lowered my voice, BUT this issue is real! Why don’t they get their F-@%# act together?
Of course, the advice from one of our World Workplace Conflict and Collaboration Survey respondents, can’t hurt either, you can always, “bake a cake ;-)”
“I understand how frustrating this is. I’m deeply concerned too.”
“I get why this is so bad (restate impact to customer or business)”
These phrases help you acknowledge their emotion. Show that you get it. This immediately reduces their sense of being alone and the frustration that goes with that feeling. One of the reasons a screamer keeps screaming is they feel they’ve not been heard. Show your moody boss you care too.
“I’m so sorry I screwed this up. Here’s what I will do…”
or “Yeah, this is totally my fault. Next time I will…”
If it’s your fault, there’s no better phrase than an apology paired with taking responsibility for what you’ll do to fix it (either this time or next time).
Powerful Phrases to Talk About Patterns of Cranky Boss Behavior
It’s tempting to address the mood during the mood because that’s when your emotions are high as well. But we strongly recommend that you schedule the conversation. Pick a calmer time to talk about their patterns or even bring in a bit of humor.
“I’m observing a repeated pattern where [specific observations]…and I’m wondering…”
People are often blind to their patterns. “Sure I was grumpy this morning, but I’m not that way every day am I?” When you can give specific examples, it helps your moody boss look in a mirror and make a decision to do something differently.
Here’s a full example of this one from a real conversation I (David) had with my manager:
“I’m seeing a pattern where you get upset with people laughing in the breakroom. For example, it happened after lunch today, this morning, and yesterday afternoon. And I’m wondering what’s going on for you right now?”
“This is what it’s like to be me in this situation.”
If you are a regular reader, you’ll recognize this powerful phrase from our article on dealing with a bully at work (without losing your lunch money).
This phrase gives you an opportunity to calmly and objectively share how you’re feeling. I
“How can I help?”
This Powerful Phrase is simple but effective. It gets the person out of their reactivity and into some critical thinking. Often the answer is “Nothing, thank you.” Or you might learn of a significant opportunity that will help your career.
One of our favorite examples of these conversations in use was when we worked with a leadership team who addressed their CEO’s habit of swearing in frustration. The CEO picked a funny code word to use instead of using an F-bomb. The word lightened to mood (it was hard to say the code word with a straight face) and he still communicated the severity of the situation.
Much of the time, when a moody boss gets emotional, it’s because the work is really important, and they’re passionate about getting it right. Of course, it’s not your job to calm them down. They are responsible for their own emotions and executive presence. And, some careful communication can convey how much you care too and help de-escalate the conversation for more productive dialogue.