Managing irritability: how not to take it out on your team

Written by Annie Makoff-Clark Wednesday 24 March 2021
We’re all stressed right now. Sleeplessness and exhaustion are rife. But you can ensure that irritation doesn't spill over
Woman rubbing her eyes in frustration

Misunderstandings via email, conflicting priorities, interruptions during video calls; there’s a lot to be irritated by these days. Chartered Manager Marie Coombes, a conflict resolution consultant at We Restore Calm, says levels of irritability in workplaces have ‘skyrocketed’ over the last year, with the majority of conflict being around misinterpreting written communication.

“Even a quick email to say ‘give me a call’ can be interpreted in many different ways,” Marie explains. “People may think, ‘what have I done now?’ or, ‘am I in trouble?’ and that can spike someone’s irritability and anxiety. Whereas if you are in the office, someone might say: ‘can I just grab you for a quick coffee?’ and it becomes much more spontaneous.”

According to Dr Cath Bishop, GB Olympic rower, senior conflict diplomat and business coach, the more stressed and uncertain we feel about things, the more irritable we’re likely to be. We can be less considered in our responses. We may display impatience or feel threatened or challenged; we may lash out or shut off. While everyone is irritable from time to time, being on the receiving end of an irritated manager can affect team cohesion and psychological safety.

So what can the best, most dedicated managers do to ensure they don’t take out their irritability and irritation on their teams?

Understand how it affects you

“Take some time to reflect on how you experience irritability and what it means to you,” advises Cath. “Someone might snap a lot when they feel irritable, someone else might become unresponsive, another person might shut down altogether. It affects people in different ways. So how does irritability affect your behaviours and relationships with others?”

Press pause

According to Cath, we can’t press pause in reality, but pressing pause mentally can be a great technique. If you’ve made a mistake as a manager, take the time to pause and reflect on what you can do to make it better, or better still, press pause before you react to a potentially challenging situation.

Get moving

In Cath’s view, movement can alter our physiological state, which changes our mood and mindset. Many of us will be moving a lot less during lockdown, especially for those working from home, so it’s important to get up and move about – particularly if something has irritated you. “Movement can help us think about things differently,” Cath explains. “Stand up when taking calls, move to a different place, get a fresh perspective.” Getting outside in the fresh air can help, too. “Your brain will start to make sense of things, and it will help you realise you have other choices available to difficult situations, other than responding badly. From a simple health and wellbeing perspective, moving about and getting outside can help you calm down.”

Acknowledge how you’re feeling

“It’s not a failure for a manager to admit they’re having a bad day,” says Marie. “Tell your team if you’re feeling irritable or stressed.” It’s about encouraging everyone to show empathy when someone in the team is having a bad day. “Being open, honest and transparent is vital. Let your team know it’s OK not to be OK.”

Listen without reacting

Marie advises a five-minute uninterrupted speaking time to allow people to talk openly about what’s bothering them. “Often we listen to respond, we don’t listen to hear,” she explains. “But by creating a space where individuals take it in turns to speak and then listen without interrupting is like taking a literal step back. We should never react when we’re angry, so this is a good technique to use when there are tensions within the team.”

Don’t lose sight of your team

Focusing entirely on business-orientated goals can create added pressure for dedicated managers if these goals aren’t met. But, says Cath, it’s easy to forget that goals should also include team cohesion. “How you work as a manager and how you react to your team matters,” says Cath. “A good day isn’t just about meeting goals but the quality of how you interact with others. Your team are part of your daily responsibilities and shouldn’t be an afterthought. Listen to their ideas and think about how you can support them positively.”

Resolve issues early

You should respond to any potential conflict at the earliest possible point, Marie advises. “People have a heightened level of irritability and anxiety right now, and we may end up saying things without thinking, so if that happens, deal with it head-on.” If there’s been tension during a Zoom call, it would mean picking up the phone straight away to speak to the individual involved to check in with them. “Don’t brush it under the carpet,” says Marie. “Deal with it early and directly before it develops into something else.”

The process of becoming a Chartered Manager involves a lot of valuable self-reflection. Do you feel ready to start exploring the process?

CMI members can log into the Career Development Centre to find personal development tools to super-boost their skills today. In the E-learning Hub on the CDC, you’ll find helpful resources on communication, emotional intelligence and more. Here’s a module on developing self-awareness to get you started.


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