When Your Manager Storms Out of a Meeting

How to deal with an emotional outburst in business

This is it: you’re finally in the room with your manager and senior leaders, presenting on a critical initiative you’re working on. You are sharing a recommendation that is controversial, but you believe is right.

Things are tense. People are on edge. Stakes are high. The manager’s face is getting red. Before you know it, the meeting is running off the rails. The manager storms out of the meeting room. People who remain are shocked — is this a power move to show how little the manager values your time? You’re furious too, left with a mess to clean. By leaving abruptly, the manager left you with the uncertainty and a sense of powerlessness.

As extreme as it sounds, it’s not rare for people in power to storm out of meetings these days. It could be your manager, your co-founder, your investor, or your board member. With the increase of remote working and virtual meetings, it’s easier than ever to just hit the red button to hang up and virtually storm out. Elon Musk even instructed his employees to “just leave meetings or hang up the phone if the meeting is not productive” in one of his blunt 2018 emails. Marissa Meyer reportedly just got up and left a meeting with Dave Winer during a conversation about the Blogger acquisition.

Your immediate reactions might be: What just happened? Where does this sense of entitlement come from? How can they just get up and leave? What a jerk move!

We need to consider if it’s really a sense of entitlement. In the case of a complete narcissist, sometimes it genuinely is. They will see their storming out as completely justified and will blame others for causing the storming out. That is a manager I would consider not working for.

But unless you’re dealing with a complete narcissist, the manager will probably feel some shame and/or regret once they’re in a safe environment again. While you may not know what the manager was thinking when they stormed out, it’s safe to say they’re probably acting from a place of emotion — not logic.  They may very well be going through an amygdala hijacking which causes the fight, flight, or freeze reaction. Some people act out when they get emotionally flooded, because they haven’t learned how to communicate what they’re thinking, feeling, or needing in a healthy manner. If we thought about it more, anger is rarely the root emotion. There’s usually something underneath it, most often a fear. Take the manager, what’s under that anger? Fear of rejection? Fear of looking stupid? Fear of losing control? For some people, they don’t act out, but instead close down. It looks different, but the same underlying fears are still there.

How do you deal with the aftermath?

Ah, the aftermath. Again, if we aren’t dealing with a complete narcissist, the manager is probably feeling some regret and/or shame.

Those left in the room are left wondering what to do, and that can feel really awkward. Instead of judging the manager or their behavior, be curious instead. Desire to learn what happened. Ask questions like,

  • What just happened?
  • What was the manager thinking or feeling that made them walk out?
  • Did we have any responsibility in their getting angry?
  • What might be going on under the anger?
  • Is there a bigger picture to this story?
  • What are our options to move forward?

It’s natural for most people to want to avoid conflict or confrontation. But if you knew someone would benefit from changing their behavior, then telling them would be one of the most helpful things you could do for them.

Someone in the room, preferably someone the manager respects, should go find the manager after the meeting concludes and ask them if they’d like to talk about it. If the manager is still highly emotional, it may be best to wait until they have time to cool down. If they appear calm, then you can try to have a constructive conversation. Here’s how, and a very specific example at the end. 

Prepare for your conversation and use what Lori calls the ABC model of giving feedback.

A = Aiming for, hoping for, wanting for the person. This is short and positive. The reason why you start with a short, positive, Aim is to convey empathy, to show you care, and to lessen the chances of the receiver becoming defensive.

B = Behaviors you observed in/from the other person. These are fact-based, omitting assumptions, feelings, or judgment. It’s merely what you observed happen. A good way to tell if you are stating facts is the “videotape test”: can what you describe be captured by a video camera? I.e. “You walked out of the meeting” passes the test and it is a fact; whereas “you’re crazy” doesn’t pass the test and is a judgment.

C = Consequences or impact of those behaviors. Don’t skip this part either. We often tell people what they’re doing wrong, but not what those behaviors are doing to the person, others, the company, etc. The manager probably knows what he/she did was wrong, and calling them out puts them on the defensive. Focus mainly on the impact.

The KEY is to NEVER go out of order. ALWAYS then then C.

If they get defensive, keep going back to A (Aiming) to let them know that your aim is positive. Afterwards, discuss next steps.

Here’s an example for a manager storming out:

A = “Manager, we won’t always agree on every issue, but we want you to be an integral part of creating an environment where we can safely and enthusiastically communicate, collaborate, and get s*#t done.”

B = “I realize things got heated, but when you showed your anger and abruptly left the meeting,”

C = “it damaged your credibility and reputation, and it exhibited a lack of maturity. Folks in the room were shocked and then left to wonder how to pick up the pieces. You leaving like that not only shut down the conversation, but you now run the risk of folks not being fully open and honest in future conversations.”

A = “Again, we all want this company to be successful, and that means we want you to be successful too. Let’s talk about where to go from here to get us back on track, because this can’t happen again.”

If the person doesn’t change, how do you protect yourself? After giving initial feedback, there should be some accountability. If you are the manager’s boss, then discussing how the manager will act in the future is necessary. You may even ask for a written plan of action. If you are lower in the organization, then you may choose to leave it at giving the ABC feedback. That may be enough for the manager to hear. If behaviors don’t change, then communicating the behavior to the manager’s boss or HR may be your best bet. To protect yourself, do an ABC conversation where one of the consequences (the C) is saying that you don’t feel safe when the manager displays anger inappropriately. Or you don’t feel comfortable speaking openly and honestly anymore. Ask the manager if they can change their behavior and what, if anything, they need from you to support them.

Next post: All signs point to terminating an employee, but I just can’t bring myself to do it. What’s wrong with me?

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