Angry With an Employee? Wait 24 Hours.

You will respond better if you wait.

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Time provides needed distance from a tense or emotional situation. Sometimes, it completely diffuses it.

Have you ever had a manager who micromanaged? Did you ever feel like the things your boss would make a big deal out of were just…strange? Did you ever feel personally attacked by your manager when you made a minor mistake?

I was once this boss. 

I’ve lived two lives as a manager. My first life was unintentional—like many folks in the service industry, becoming a manager isn’t always a goal: it’s more like an inevitability. Managers come and go, and eventually, we ascend into jobs filled with more responsibility and meager wage increases. And yet, many service workers are ill-equipped to actually do these jobs well. Almost no one is trained to be a manager. You just assume new responsibilities and figure it out as you go. 

When I first became a manager, I thought my job was to keep things running. Order products, make a schedule, be an ear to employees when they needed it. Instead, I morphed into a person that cared about every little detail. I’d walk into work looking for what was wrong. I’d ask questions about sales before even saying hello. I’d immediately try to correct people when they made a mistake, no matter how small.

Naturally, this made me unpopular. I’d catch employees continuing to make the same mistakes or suddenly shift around when I’d walk into work, undoubtedly because they were doing something I wouldn’t approve of. So my response was to be hypervigilant. I’d come into work on my days off, or try to catch people off-guard. Instead of just overseeing day-to-day operations, I was concerned with every little detail, every moment of my workspace. And it made me miserable. 

It probably made those around me miserable as well. Eventually, I decided I no longer wanted to manage anymore. I wrote off managing as a fool’s folly—something that you could only do if you could give yourself over completely to your job. 

Folks, this isn’t true. 

My second life as a manager came at an intersection of choice and need. I had been working weekends at my local coffee shop, and decided to leave my 9-5 job to pursue a slightly less hectic lifestyle. The shop I worked at was operating without a manager, and the de facto lead barista was leaving to pursue another job. I asked the owner if he was interested in having me manage the store, and he said yes. 

This time, I knew I had to do things differently. I read dozens of articles and books about management and began shifting my perspective on what it meant to lead. I reflected on the leaders I admired, and I remembered this one boss I had at another coffee shop a few years back. He made clear what his absolutes were: serve customers fast, make sure they had everything they needed, and everything else was pretty much up to the staff to figure out.

I tried this tactic. I picked a few things I cared about and let everything else go. That forced me to think abstractly: what did I want people to feel when they came into the cafe, and how would I empower my staff to make smart decisions about everything else? I told staff that I cared about acknowledging customers—say hello to everyone, even if you can’t serve them immediately. I told them the rest was up to them and spent the rest of my energy on positive empowerment. I wanted people to feel good at work, and translate that feeling to making confident decisions.

This was an incredibly active process to start. One of the first things I did to make this happen was to wait when I got upset. It’s hard to break the habit of being nitpicky or to micromanage, but when I saw something that I’d normally jump all over, I’d tell myself to wait. Unless it violated the one rule I had, which was to acknowledge customers, I’d simply write down the action or make a mental note, and wait 24 hours.

This worked for me in three ways:

If I reacted at the moment, I’d likely react with anger and negativity. When we feel things at the moment, we’re likely not only to express our dissatisfaction with the action but the emotions that this dissatisfaction carries. 

Let’s say you trained an employee to do an action in a particular way. Perhaps this is the way you were trained, or perhaps it’s a business standard practice. If you observe them doing it in a completely different way, it will stir up an emotion. It might be confusion, annoyance, anger, whatever.

Does that employee really need to feel that emotion from you to correct the action? Or can you take a moment and tell them in a space and a manner that is safe? By allowing time to pass, you allow your emotions to cool off, and you can truly focus on the corrective steps you need to take with that employee.

Remember what the goal is. If an employee messes up, the goal shouldn’t be to admonish them but to help them do better next time. That’s it. You shouldn’t want them to detect your annoyance or anger and you shouldn’t want to embarrass them in front of other employees. Corrective action should solely be about that: correcting behavior. 

I’m not saying you can’t be annoyed—if someone continues to do something you’ve asked them to correct, you can express that feeling, but by giving 24 hours of space, you’ll likely find a healthier way to express that emotion. Being snippy at the moment might feel like the thing you want to do, but waiting a day means you can collect your thoughts and say something like, “Hey, I feel like I’ve told you a few times that this is incorrect, and it’s frustrating to have to continue repeating myself. Is there a way we could create a system that reminds you of the correct way to do this?” 

This allows the employee both to respond and fully understand where you’re coming from. Again, the focus should be on finding a solution—not to express the emotions surrounding your dissatisfaction. 

If I didn’t care in 24 hours, then it didn’t really matter.

It’s natural to be suspicious of folks when they do something differently from how we’d do it. And it’s very easy to make that feeling known. But there’s a big difference between an employee doing something different and doing something wrong, and I found that it was hard to discern between the two at the moment. Just because I think I’m right about something doesn’t mean an employee is wrong.

By allowing myself space to react—and to potentially forget and move on—I let go of some of the “micromanaging” tendencies I gravitated to. Did it matter that an employee did something in a manner I wouldn’t, as long as the task was done well? No. By giving myself time to react, I could glean if this infraction really matter. If I was still thinking about the behavior the next day, then I could address it at that time. 

How often do things feel like a big deal one day and then the next feel insignificant? This is especially true at work, and if something isn’t a big deal in 24 hours, then you should let it go. You have more important things to do.

Waiting 24 hours gave me time to analyze why they messed up—and figure out if it was my fault.

It’s easy to observe an action and know it’s wrong. It’s much harder to figure out why the action happened in the first place.

I’m going to share a phrase I repeat to myself often (and will likely repeat again). Most people want to do their jobs well. People don’t make mistakes because they want to, and some make mistakes because they haven’t been shown the correct way to do something. If I didn’t give someone the tools to do their job well, then their mistake is my fault. My anger and annoyance are completely inappropriate to express to them.

By waiting 24 hours, I could discern if their mistake was their fault or mine. I’d say 95% of the time it was mine. If I did realize it was my fault, I would approach them with an apology, and point out that their mistake was my oversight.

By waiting 24 hours to address concerns, my time opened up. I trusted my staff way more and knew they were going to make good decisions without me. I also felt like my feedback was better, more constructive, and taken with care and thoughtfulness. My employees knew that if I was giving them feedback, it was something I cared about. It also showed that I trusted them to make decisions and find systems that worked best for them. 

I wasn’t always angry. I didn’t micromanage. I’d stay away on days off. I could leave work knowing that the issues of today could be addressed later.

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