My first boss loved to yell. He was the store manager of a high-volume location, a respected industry veteran, and a great merchant. I was a teenager in my first retail job. And he delighted in screaming at me.
One of my co-workers told me not to take it personally. “That’s just the way he is when he's stressed.” It seemed to me that he was always stressed.
Later, when I was a department head, and then a store manager, I discovered why my first boss seemed to be so angry all the time: retail will drive you crazy. Moment to moment, day to day, it seems like there is always something going wrong. I don’t have to tell you. It wears on you, making you exhausted and emotional. And often angry.
All of us have to come up with ways to cope with retail stress. (Yelling at people isn’t the best answer, by the way.)
But during COVID, when sales are high and out-of-stocks are a daily problem; when shoppers get angry about being asked to wear masks and associates have to sit out when they are even worried about being ill, stress is a bigger problem than ever before. And now the holidays will very soon be here, with all that they entail.
Some of you have asked me for advice. How can you keep your associates from burning out? How can you keep your management team motivated? How can you stay calm in the middle of all this new stress?
Here are a few tips—more anecdotal than scientific, mind you—but they seem to work to help de-escalate issues, whether they come from an associate in stress, a customer acting out, or manager being pushed beyond their limits during this unusual, frustrating, and often frightening time.
Remember that a person who is angry or upset needs to know they are being heard. If they think someone isn’t listening to their fears or issues, they will become even more upset. The number one first step is telling them that you want to understand. Actually use those words: “I want to understand.”
When someone is angry or frustrated, they are not able to be rational. You can’t solve a problem with someone who is crying or yelling. Expecting them to behave rationally when they are consumed by emotion is unfair. Instead, listen to them and acknowledge you are concerned about their issues until you can see them begin to calm. The best way to calm someone is to let them know that you care about what upsets them. “If you are upset, I am too, and I don’t want you to be upset.”
Don’t start solving problems too soon. It is often more important for the person under stress just to know that someone has heard and understood them than to hear a solution. A great tactic is to restate what you heard, and ask them to tell you if you truly understood. “I think I understand; tell me if I got it right?”
Sometimes, what a person is angry about can be fixed easily. But often, solutions are more complex and can't be solved in a quick conversation. Sometimes what they want isn’t possible, or is against store policy. When you can’t solve their problem, a great tactic is to ask them to see your side of an issue as part of their issue, too. For example, “I know wearing a mask in the store is a pain, but one of our associates is in a high-risk group. Even if you don’t believe they work, they are afraid, so we ask everyone to do it for their safety. You want to help them feel safe, right?”
Helping others is a great strategy to improve your own mental health. More than yoga, meditation, or smashing stuff, experts see a mental health boost when people can see their efforts to help others are making a difference. Tactics here include asking your customers to recommend associates for praise or checking back in with an upset associate at the end of the day to make sure they are okay. It is an amazing therapeutic balm to learn what we do actually matters in other peoples’ lives.
Praise is a gift that keeps giving. You can’t tell people you appreciate them enough. Everyone loves hearing that they are valued and appreciated. It is free, easy, and can be addictive. Praise (where deserved) and you will be amazed how even a little effort can go a long way.
It is way easier to type advice like this than to do it. And it is hard to remember these steps when you are in the heat of the moment, but I know from firsthand experience they do seem to make a difference.
I worked for that first store manager for a summer and he yelled at me each and every day. Nothing I did seemed to be good enough. So when it was time to go back to school, and he pulled me aside to tell me I was a great associate and I would be welcome to stay on part-time, I was dumbfounded.
“Charlie, I thought you hated me?” I asked him.
“Nah, kid. Me yelling just means I care,” he told me.
Wish I had this article to send him all those years ago!