"A gentle answer deflects anger,
but harsh words make tempers flare."
I want to be a good leader. A good leader is a mature leader. One of the signs of maturity is the ability to respond to someone in a way that is right, good, and beneficial towards the one who is being responded to. It is not always easy to respond in the right way to someone who is out of line, angry, defensive, or possessive; but as a leader, it is always necessary.
A leader doesn’t have a choice of whether or not they will respond rightly. If they respond poorly, they could lose time, resources, or worse-respect. A leader simply can’t afford to lose the respect of those they are leading, and so they must respond rightly.
So in the midst of a tense situation, angry conversation, or written communication gone awry, how does a leader respond in a right way? In the book of James, the author refers to the tongue as a "fire that can do some real damage". When I was younger, there was a great PSA where Smokey the Bear taught me how to respond if I ever catch on fire, using a phrase I’ll never forget: Stop, Drop, and Roll. So I respectfully use Smokey’s phrase to explain the best way for a leader to respond to the fire-like qualities of a tense team member.
When confronted with a tense question, complaint, or accusation, the very first thing a leader should do is absolutely nothing. You should not react, especially if you feel defensive or angry in any way. What you should do is stop. Just because you are a leader doesn’t mean you have to explain, respond, write that amazingly brilliant email, or get louder right away. What you can and should do is stop. This is where true maturity shows.
Some of the most angry, bitter, mean-spirited emails or Facebook posts I’ve ever written were the ones that were never actually sent. Just because I’ve written it doesn’t mean I need to send it. To take that a step further, just because I feel something doesn’t mean I need to communicate it. Feelings can lie, and a mature leader understands that pausing before answering can “turn away wrath” rather than pour gasoline on the fire.
When Smokey says “drop," what he means is drop to the ground and connect the flames with the ground. When the fire eventually gets rolled over, it extinguishes. So my parallel is this: when you connect the words that were said, that brought you to an angry, defensive place, with what you ultimately need as the leader, you are able to focus on what is best for the organization.
So if the team member is angry about not getting a raise, stop. Then connect what they actually said (attempting to put aside, at least for a time, how they said it) and connect it with the values of the organization. Yes, the member deserves a raise. Yes, you believe in taking care of your team members. Yes, it might be difficult to actually give them a raise. Yet, the right thing to do is to take care of their family because you care about them as someone who is a part of your family/organization. That connection begins to extinguish the fire that had taken hold of your spirit and anger gives way to reason to care for your team member in your mind.
As reason takes the place of emotion in your head, you can then respond with grace and truth in a way that commands the respect of your team member. So you roll your thoughts and answers out in communicate with them. When you respond with grace and truth in response to a tense conversation, you do a service both to your organization and to the person to whom you are responding. So many leaders make the mistake of landing on one side or the other.
On one side, some give too much grace and don’t hold the team member accountable for their angry tone, outburst, or email. This allows an already dysfunctional team member to say whatever they want with whatever attitude they would like to say it. The freedom of saying what you need to say is important for a healthy organization, but how you are held accountable to how you said it is an important point for any culture to remain healthy.
On the other side, some offer too much organizational truth in their response, and in doing so, showing that their highest priority is the organization at the expense of the team members. As well as showing that both the organization and the team member are priorities allow the team member to hear all of the leader’s communication and soak in the leadership culture the leader is spreading around as he or she responds in a right way.
Responding is not an easy task in general, but specifically responding to an angry or frustrated person. However, the good and mature leader bares the responsibility to answer the angry or frustrated person in a way that both attempts to alleviate the anger or frustration of that person and points them back to the healthy culture the organization needs to flourish in the future.
At all times as a leader please be careful of the fires around you and please, please, please, “Stop, Drop, and Roll.”
Marty Holman has been a pastor in Central Massachusetts since 1998. He has served as the location pastor of Next Level Worcester since May 2015 and is blessed to serve alongside his wife Carie of 12 years, 5 year old twins, Scarlett & Sawyer, and two other beautiful children who will be legally adopted in November 2017.