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Do You Work With A Volcano?

Do you work with a volcano? I’m talking about an irascible person whose irrational adult temper tantrums explode on all bystanders at the most inopportune moments causing fear, confusion, hurt feelings, and embarrassment just when the team most needs to pull together. The deadline pressure of special events in particular seem to provoke these people. Over time, this unpredictable, immature, and vicious behavior breeds distrust, anger, and contempt for the individual and causes good staff to head for the door in search of a better work environment, one where they are appreciated and trusted. The behavior is especially damaging when the volcano is an authority figure.  I am not a mental health professional, but here are my observations on how to deal with a volcanic colleague.

Experience tells me that volcano people explode when the stakes are high (e.g.—during load-in or moments before a major event is about to happen) and when they don’t feel in control or they don’t have all the information they think they need. This applies even if that information has nothing to do with their areas of responsibility. The outburst exposes their deficient self-confidence and lack of trust of others. The tantrum can also be triggered by lack of preparation on that person’s part—the bubbling up from deep down inside his or her own conscience that perhaps he or she didn’t complete tasks or didn’t do them well. The fear that they are about to be exposed causes a panic explosion thus diverting attention from the real problems.

Like a volcano, once the explosion begins, there is nothing that can be done to stop it so don’t be drawn in by arguing or contradicting, even though you may be right. This person isn’t listening and your efforts to reason with him or her will likely escalate the anger. Instead, maintain your professional composure, offer little or no responses and when you do, keep an even, calm (not sarcastic or condescending) tone in your voice.  If possible, try to maneuver her or him out of earshot of guests and other staff members. When the tirade abates, calmly give instructions to get people refocused on their jobs and get back on track. This will require an extraordinary amount of self-control but sucking you in and baiting you to lose your poise by provoking you to an angry response is just what this person wants. Don’t do it.

Later, when tempers have cooled, meet with the person to discuss what happened. Adult volcanoes are often bullies and I have found standing up to them with an unruffled demeanor when they are not irrational is one of the few methods that has any effect. Set boundaries by telling him or her (even if it is your boss) that you don’t appreciate being spoken to in that way and that you won’t tolerate such disrespectful behavior. Don’t be surprised if he or she denies the outburst or seems to remember it very differently from everyone else. Never mind rehashing the specifics of the incident or attempting to present facts. Volcanoes never accept responsibility for their actions and will not be receptive to your facts or defenses (even if you are right). If this person is one of your staff members, require him or her to apologize to those who were in the direct path of the eruption.

Bottom line: Work should not be a place where you have to constantly fear another outburst. Repeatedly having to endure such behavior, especially when the person is your boss, can affect not only your work life, but your personal relationships and overall happiness. Unfortunately, adult volcanoes rarely change their behavior and sometimes, the only certain relief is to seek another position.

There are many articles online about why adult temper tantrums happen and how to deal with them. One that I like is here: https://www.powerofpositivity.com/5-ways-deal-someone-temper-tantrum/.