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« Belief is more powerful than proof | Main | The three toxic stooges of the project apocalypse »

Extinguishing the tantrum cycle

Tantrums are frightening. Whether it's an employee, a customer or a dog out of control, tantrum behavior is so visceral, self-defeating and unpredictable, rational participants want nothing more than to make it go away.

And so the customer service rep or boss works to placate the tantrum thrower, which does nothing but reinforce the behavior, setting the stage for ever more tantrums.

Consider three ideas:

  • Listen to the person, not the tantrum
  • Tantrums want to deal with tantrums
  • Create systems to avoid it in the first place

When an employee calls you up, furious, in mid-tantrum, it's tempting to placate or to argue back. That's the tantrum pressing your buttons. Instead, ask him to write down every thing that's bothering him, along with what he hopes you'll do, and then call you back. Or even better, meet with you tomorrow.

Email tantrums are similar. If someone sends you an email tantrum, don't respond, point by point, proving that you are correct. Instead, consider ways to de-escalate, not by giving in to the argument, but by refusing to have the argument.

Engaging in the middle of a tantrum does two things: it rewards the tantrum by giving it your attention, and it makes it likely that you'll get caught up, and say or do something that, in the mind of the tantrum-thrower, justifies the tantrum. That's the fuel the tantrum is looking for--we throw tantrums, hoping people will throw them back.

When you have valuable employees or customers (or kids) who throw tantrums, that might be a sign that there's something wrong with your systems. The most basic way to decrease tantrums is to find the trigger moments and catch the tantrum before it starts. By creating a way for people to raise their hand, send a note, light a signal flare or otherwise highlight the problem (internal or external) before it leads to a tantrum, you can shortcircuit the meltdown without rewarding it.

If your dog is going crazy, straining at the leash and barking, it turns out that yelling, "sit," is going to do no good at all, no matter how loudly you yell. No, the secret is to not take your dog to this park, not at this time of day, at least not until you figure out how to create more positive cycles for him. Eliminate the trigger, you start to eliminate the tantrum.

Unfortunately, just about all big customer service organizations do this precisely backward. They don't escalate to a supervisor or roll out the kindness carpet until after someone has gone to Defcon 4. They decide that it's too expensive to be flexible, to listen or to treat people fairly, and they wait until the costs to both sides are really high, and then they give an empowered person a chance to solve the problem. There's huge waste here, as the problem costs more to solve at this point, and the unseen challenge is that they've established a cycle in which umbrage is the rewarded behavior.

And the last (but essential) thing to keep in mind is this: tantrums are really expensive, and if you can't extinguish the ongoing problem, fire it. Fire the customer, fire the employee. Establish a standard that says that people around here don't act like that. Expose the tantrum for what it is, and if necessary, do it in front of the tantrum-thrower's peers. It will free up your resources for those that are able to earn them.

When the cost of throwing a tantrum is high and when the systems are in place to eliminate the triggers, tantrum behavior goes down.

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