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We are a small team who performs software development and support services for other teams within the organization. My manager is the leader of this team. One of our "clients", another team lead in the organization, was in a meeting with my manager and I. A disagreement in the meeting escalated to where I was asked to leave the room and my manager began "chewing out" the other team lead, yelling loud enough for the entire office to hear.

What is the best course of action to intervene to assist the recipient of verbal abuse when my manager is the one performing the abuse? Should one wait for the conflict to play itself out, or try to defuse the situation somehow?

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This was in the US. The resolution of this particular situation was as follows: I did not intervene and discussed the event with my manager afterward. During the discussion he acknowledged that he had handled the situation poorly. He attended followup meetings with his manager and the team lead's manager the following day. This was a one-time occurrence after working under the manager for nearly a year, but if the issue repeated itself I would consider taking the path you are suggesting. –  Conor Sep 4 at 20:55

3 Answers 3

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What is the best course of action to intervene to assist the recipient of verbal abuse when my manager is the one performing the abuse? Should one wait for the conflict to play itself out, or try to defuse the situation somehow?

I think you handled it correctly.

Wait for the conflict/screaming to end. Then talk to your Manager privately once things have quieted down.

Jumping in to attempt to defuse the situation has several perils:

  • You aren't the manager of either party, so it's not really your role to play the go-between.
  • Your intrusion could be resented by your Manager, who (rightly or wrongly) is handling a situation in a way he deems appropriate.
  • Your intrusion could be resented by your peer, who may be perfectly capable of standing up for himself and doesn't actually need your help.
  • Unless you are careful, you could find yourself getting entangled in the shouting match, diminishing your position.

Unless you are in HR, or you are the Manager of one of the participants, or there is obvious imminent physical violence about to take place, then stay out of the fray.

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Unless you're a police officer, please stay out of physically violent situations and call for help. –  user987654 Sep 4 at 20:36
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@OllieJones there are many cases where this is irresponsible. Even with violence imminent, there are many ways to intervene and reach a non-violent solution. Furthermore, given the choice between receiving a black eye or allowing an elderly/frail coworker to receive a broken arm or dislocated shoulder, I think many will agree it's wrong not to intervene. –  CodeMoose Sep 4 at 21:27

Remove yourself from the vicinity of the abuse, and report the offending action to HR.

First and foremost you should ensure that you don't become the target of the abuse. Interrupting, or "speaking-up" to assist only puts you between the two parties. If you do that, you could (surprisingly) become the target of both individuals.

Second, you need to locate someone with experience and training to deal with intense conflict management. Your HR department should have someone available who can calm the situation down. The up-side to getting them involved is if there are any personnel actions to take as a result of the abuse, they are the exact right people to do the action.

Remember, a lot of frustration, anger and conflict happen and mount-up before someone loses thier cool in the manner that you stated. If this person is a manager, by losing thier cool and screaming at thier peer, it completely destroys thier base of authority with anyone other than the folks who report to them. This is well known to managers, and if the frustration rose to that level, it is not something you want to deal with.

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Keep it cool. The only thing that's worse than hearing yelling is getting yelled at.

You can help everybody by being a disinterested, impartial, credible witness and by keeping a cool head. Keep track of the date, time and place of the incident, in case anyone is investigating it.

So far as diffusing the situation is concerned, by the time you were asked/told to leave the room, it was too late to defuse anything. The time to defuse was during the buildup of the tensions, but be cognizant that much of the buildup of the tensions may have occurred before the meeting took place. Be very careful about playing peace maker: a lot of people who suffered horrible deaths throughout history were peace makers and opposing sides have often enough a penchant for uniting temporarily just for the purpose of beating the daylights out of peace makers :)

As @JoeStrazzere mentioned, intervene only if one of the parties is about to suffer physical harm. And intervene if one of the parties is suffering physical harm. Intervention may be as simple as firmly refusing to leave when asked/told to leave or rushing back into the room if your hear a commotion. At which point, you should take firm control of the situation and if you have to order your boss to go to a corner, have no compunction about doing it. This is not the time to worry about the niceties of corporate etiquette or deference to rank.

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