A few days ago, we had a fairly impromptu team meeting to discuss a new initiative. My goal was to brainstorm some creative visual ideas with the designers, but I also invited the engineering team so that they could participate. One of my senior UX engineers, Dan, was out of the office, and so he dialed in to the meeting because we couldn't realistically wait for a few days and it didn't seem urgent that he attend in person.
We had the meeting, and one of the ideas seemed to touch on some of the things Dan really cared about. The designers were proposing something that in my mind was orthogonal to what he had been advocating, but he felt angry that others were encroaching on his turf. This culminated in a rant on team chat about the situation which upset several of the other teammates, and when I tried to message him about it privately (he was still out of the office) he got angrier and accused me of not supporting him and always siding with the design team over tech. What do I do?
Well, there's a lot to unpack here. Seems like a few things that should have been minor issues (team meeting without everyone in the room, one person feeling that others were encroaching on their job) escalated quickly into some serious unhappiness.
Let's discuss what went well. Trying to address the issue of inappropriate venting on chat right after it happened was the right thing to do. Even though chat is not a great way to have difficult conversations, it is always good to provide immediate feedback when you see things happen that are not respectful of others in the workplace. Sometimes the person will apologize immediately, to you and the team. If this happens, you don't need to bring it up again but you do need to watch for it in the future. Unfortunately, this time it just escalated the situation, and instead of an apology you got blamed for creating the frustration in the first place.
The thing to do now is to get face time with Dan. You can take him to breakfast, lunch or coffee if being in a public place seems more neutral than doing it in a conference room or office, but it needs to happen quickly. Letting him cool down for a day before you address the issue again is OK and possibly even healthy, but it is not OK to let this hang out there for days.
Once you get him face-to-face, your job is to listen. Completely. Don't say anything except perhaps murmurs to indicate that you are listening and following along as he speaks. At the end, give him a period of silence to ensure that he is really, truly done saying what he needs to say. For many people, just listening will be the hardest part. But you gotta get comfortable holding silence even when you're bursting to comment.
Now that he's done, you are going to repeat back to him what his concerns are as best you can, and ask clarifying (vs leading) questions. Your goal here is to make sure you understand exactly where he is coming from, and he believes that you understand this. This is to stop yourself from telling stories about him. If you find yourself filling in gaps, "you are mad because you were not in the room because you're always taking days off whenever it suits you," for example, stop. No filling in gaps. No telling stories. No imagining motivations beyond what he has told you. Give him the chance to feel totally heard.
Only once he feels totally heard are you allowed to then offer your interpretation of the situation, and how it differs from his. Try to come at this with a new perspective given what you now understand of his experience. You may find, after hearing him out, that you did screw up and ignore his ideas. If this happened, admit it and apologize.
OK, cool, so you've heard him out, and stated your case. Now what? First, if he has not yet apologized for the chat outburst, that needs to happen. It is not optional. Remind him that, as a senior person on the team, people look to him for leadership, and his behavior was not one of a leader. Beyond that, you need to start talking about why he trusts you and/or the team so little that he felt compelled to dial into a meeting that was really a courtesy invite, and why he thinks that others are stealing his ideas and getting credit that he is not getting. Because people rarely get angry and stay angry after a single minor incident. They get angry and stay angry because they've built up resentment about something over time. This is a strong warning signal to you that something is broken in your team. Even if this person is lost to you, identifying the trust gap on the team and working to repair it is essential for future stability.
A few final thoughts. We sometimes go overboard in trying to get everyone in the room for "brainstorms" and "idea sessions." Inevitably, as your team grows, people are out of the office or worse, you just simply cannot have every single person involved in these decisions. This often feels like a loss of control for early employees or senior folks who are, for whatever reason, excluded. Coming up with strategies that let people have effective idea meetings without having everyone in the room is essential. Remind everyone that ideas are just the barest first step. The path from "idea" to "implementation" usually twists the idea in ways you can't foresee, and there should be plenty of chances for people to help shape them into a better reality even if they miss the inception point.
You may want to triangulate with another person's observations of what happened in the meeting. If you decide to ask someone else about their impression, be careful not to lead them into a story you want to hear. Take the time again to listen instead of speaking yourself. Even if they agree with your assessment that Dan was out of line or tell you that you did nothing wrong, don't use it as a cudgel to bash Dan with. Be especially careful of WHO you ask to share their observations. If you are guilty of favoring designers over engineers and you ask another designer for their opinion, they may back you up, not seeing the problem. Another data point can be useful but it still does not actually paint a perfectly objective picture.
Finally, there's the possibility that you can't handle this alone, that the person is too upset to talk to you 1-1 and you need to involve a peer, superior, or someone from HR as a mediator. If that is the case, steel yourself for what will likely be an unpleasant meeting. Even if you smooth things over, it's going to take some serious apologizing on both sides and a concrete plan to work through the issues that led to this place.
Dealing with an angry team member is always touchy, but as with most difficulty situations, it gives you the opportunity to look at a bigger picture that you might have been missing, and think of strategies to address it. So don't panic, listen, and learn from the situation at hand.