Managing Volatile People

Get the Best From Emotional Team Members

Managing Volatile People - Get the Best From Emotional Team Members

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How do you avoid setting people off?

Flavia manages a team of professionals who work together successfully on highly creative projects. However, she is becoming increasingly concerned about the effect that one team member, Sayid, has on the wider group dynamic.

Sayid is one of Flavia's most talented team members, but his behavior is extremely unpredictable. Some days he's charming, funny and a pleasure to work with; at other times, he can be angry, moody and rude.

His colleagues find his behavior upsetting, and they feel that they're "walking on egg shells" around him. They've become reluctant to involve him in discussions, decisions or social events, which makes the problem even worse.

When Sayid is on form, he's an effective contributor to the team. When he isn't, his erratic behavior is disruptive and damaging. It has also created a split between those team members who remain loyal to him and those who have had enough.

So, how can you deal with volatile people on your team? We'll look at things you can do below.

What Does It Mean to Be Volatile?

Merriam-Webster defines "volatile" as "likely to change in a very sudden or extreme way." This means that volatile people likely display unexpected changes of emotion that can be hard to manage, and that can have a negative impact on the wider team.

How Do Volatile People Affect Others?

These people are often passionate, effective and driven perfectionists, but, when they get frustrated or lose their temper, they can cause problems. For example:

  • Monopolizing your time – You have less time for other team members and your own responsibilities when you regularly have to "manage" one person's mood swings.
  • Spreading negativity – Raised voices, arguments and sulking can all create an awkward and uncomfortable atmosphere. This can make other team members feel apprehensive, angry or fearful of raising issues or suggesting ideas. It can also damage morale, create friction, distract people from their priorities, and divide the group – especially when some team members remain protective of your volatile team member and others don’t.
  • Damaging your reputation as a manager – If you struggle to manage a volatile person, what impression does this give your other team members? Will Felps, an associate professor at Rotterdam School of Management, has estimated that one "bad apple" can reduce a team's performance by as much as 30-40 percent. Clearly, this will reflect badly on you.


While it's often easy to identify volatile behavior in others, it can be harder to spot it in yourself. Use the Big Five Personality Traits Model to help you determine whether you may demonstrate this trait – the "natural reactions" scale measures it.

Next, think about how you react to bad news or change. For example, do you find yourself "venting" and shouting at people? Why do you react this way and how do you think others interpret it? Do you worry obsessively about small details? Do personal issues affect your work, or vice versa?

Causes of Volatility in People

Stress and frustration are common causes of volatile behavior, especially if someone feels that they don't have control over their workload or environment, or if they think that they're unsupported or unable to cope with changes around them.

An excessive workload can also trigger volatility, along with difficult personal situations such as bereavement or a marital crisis. For example, research has shown a link between an excessive workload and marriage difficulties.

Impatience, a lack of training, overly high expectations (of yourself and of others), an inability to accept criticism or direction, arrogance, a lack of empathy for others, and physical pain can also be contributing factors.

Volatility can be caused by serious psychological or medical conditions, such as personality disorders, psychosis, drug or alcohol addictions, or depression and anxiety. If you suspect that your team member may be suffering from any of these, seek professional medical advice and guidance on the best way to handle the situation.

Dealing With Volatile Team Members

Use the five strategies below to get the best from volatile team members.

1. Approach Your Volatile Team Member

It's important to deal with the situation coolly and calmly when you have a volatile team member. It's easy to get upset, which is likely to make the situation worse, so learn how to manage your emotions and do your best to respond in a calm and intelligent way.

When she's calmed down, work with her to recognize the effect that she is having on other team members and on the team as a whole, and explain why this is unacceptable. Make it clear that you're not punishing her, rather that you're trying to help her achieve positive change.

Maintain an emotional distance, and use questioning techniques and non-threatening body language to encourage her to open up and avoid reigniting the situation. Be assertive, give clear, specific feedback about the effect of her behavior, and consider using the GROW Model to help her move forward. Listen carefully to what she says, be empathetic, acknowledge her point of view, and try to identify and address the cause of her anger.

2. Help Your Volatile Team Member Understand His Behavior

This 1999 study by Yale University cites managers' actions as the most common cause of workplace anger, followed by those of co-workers or employees, people not pulling their weight, tight deadlines, and a heavy workload. Ask your volatile team member whether he thinks there are any work- or workload-related issues that need to be addressed.

Work to address the underlying causes of his behavior in a positive way. Discuss strategies for dealing with his volatility, such as avoiding specific triggers that cause an outburst of rage.

If his behavior is caused by an unrealistic workload, discuss this with him and adjust his responsibilities. If he's struggling with short deadlines, help him to manage his time more effectively, or consider moving him to more long-term projects. If his volatility is triggered by stress, worry or anxiety, involve your organization's HR department in any action you take.

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3. Make It Formal

Remind your volatile team member of the organization's rules, and explain the effect that she's having on her co-workers. If necessary, let her know that her good performance in the past does not give her the right to behave in this way, and explain that you may be forced to issue a formal warning if it continues.

Consider using a performance agreement to improve her personal accountability and record her commitment to changing her behavior.

This might be enough to get her back on track if her behavior is a result of being arrogant and dismissive. However, taking such a hardline approach could make things worse if her actions are caused by depression, stress, anxiety, or family or personal issues. So, get advice from your HR department before you do anything.

Remember, the HR department is available to support you and your volatile team member. Many companies have an Employee Assistance Program that can help people deal with issues such as managing debt or household finances.

4. Put Behavior Goals and Coaching in Place

Make it clear how you expect your volatile team member to change his behavior, and use a performance agreement to record this and hold him accountable. Include a clear timeline in it, outline his next steps, and help him stay on track by setting SMART goals.

Where appropriate, offer him coaching or mentoring to help him address issues such as time management, and provide clear, regular feedback on his progress.

5. Discipline Your Volatile Team Member

Be prepared to issue your team member with a formal warning if her behavior persists – after all, it can seriously undermine your team. Consult your HR department before scheduling a disciplinary meeting, and have a representative present during any discussions.

Remember also to contact a health professional if you think that her behavior is caused by suspected emotional or mental health issues – again, your HR department will be able to help you here.

Key Points

People who are volatile and erratic in the workplace can cause serious damage to your team's morale and productivity, as well as to your own reputation.

Take time to understand the reasons behind your team member's behavior, take it seriously, act quickly, and firmly offer help. You may also need to consider bringing in some professional support from HR.

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Comments (3)
  • Over a month ago eeyre wrote
    Hi Iranitev
    Thanks for your message. In the article, we suggest that, if you think a team member may have a "serious psychological or medical condition", which may be underlying the volatile behaviour, you should get professional medical advice on how to deal with it.
    You could, indeed, contact mental health charities for guidance, as you mention, and you could also try your country's departments of employment and health. Your own doctor may be able to suggest sources of information and support. You could also try companies that run employee assistance programmes - they might be able to help you.
    I'm sorry I can't be more precise but I hope I've been able to give you a couple of pointers.
  • Over a month ago Midgie wrote
    Hi Iranitev,
    Thanks for sharing, and for the suggestions. I will pass this to our editorial team for their attention.

    I think it is a good thing to speak with the individual and the effect their behavior is having on the rest of the team. However, they might struggle themselves with their own behavior and feel as if they have little control over it. So perhaps you could ask them for solutions and ideas as to how best to handle the situation.

    Even if you do not have an HR department to go to for advice, you need to be careful with how you deal with employee and may even benefit from speaking to an employment lawyer / solicitor.

    Good luck and let us know if we can help you further or if you want to get any ideas as to how to handle the situation.
  • Over a month ago iranitev wrote
    This is very a helpful article, although it assumes that everyone has an HR department... we are a small business of 3 full-time employees and 2 interns, so we don't.
    I have one employee who suffers from depression and can be very difficult sometimes, but fine at others. But it is true that she takes up a lot more time to manage than the others and that her behaviour can affect our team members. However, when I tried to find some information online on dealing with depressed employees, I found it very difficult to find the appropriate help. I think the only thing to do is to point out the effect of her behaviour on others, as you say. But I am worried that she may alienate some of her fellow team members beyond the point of recall.
    Some suggestions for where to start for those of us without an HR department would also be good... coaches, mental illness charities, lawyers, payroll advisers... I will read through the other links, thank you.