The Key to Resolving Workplace Anger

Workplace anger

When thinking about workplace anger, many people think immediately of infamous workplace shootings with terrible casualties. The devastation of these violent tragedies includes loss of life, serious injury, and incredible psychological trauma, as well as considerable property damage.

Actual workplace violence is the most extreme, the most costly, and perhaps the most attention-getting manifestation of workplace anger, but it is by far the least common. Thank goodness, most angry feelings never result in workplace violence at all. However, workplace anger can still be costly in terms of retail security if poorly managed.

As much as individuals may struggle with anger in their personal lives, anger is even more challenging when it is felt and expressed—even nonviolently—in the workplace. While the workplace is an environment more likely to provoke feelings of anger, the consequences of poorly managed workplace anger may be much greater than in other contexts. While it may sound strange, workplace anger can also be valuable when it is managed well.

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What Is Workplace Anger?

We’ve all dealt with angry people in our personal lives and probably in our working lives. And we all know how it feels to be angry. But what exactly is anger?

Anger is a normal and basic emotion that ranges from mild irritation to intense rage. Like fear, anger comes from our instinct for self-preservation and is always provoked by some stimulus. The stimulus may be internal or external, direct or indirect. Common anger stimuli include disapproval, deprivation, restriction, exploitation, frustration, manipulation, betrayal, threats, and humiliation.

In response to one or more of these triggering stimuli, the body releases two hormones, adrenaline and noradrenaline, which produce physiological arousal, including muscle tension, increased blood pressure, accelerated heart rate, and rapid breathing. That’s why angry people often scowl, grind their teeth, glare, clench their fists, shudder, flush (or pale), and twitch.

But the effects of anger go way beyond these physical manifestations. Anger has a huge impact on our perceptions, interpretations, thinking, communication, and behavior. That’s why angry people often have a difficult time “listening to reason” or appreciating the “other side of the story.” It is also why they speak in a cold, monotone voice; yell; say things that are intimidating, threatening, or hurtful; lash out physically at inanimate objects; or, even worse, at animals or other people.

Of course, some people do not directly express their anger at all. They might try to deny and repress their feelings, which leaves the anger seething beneath the surface. Such unexpressed anger may find another outlet, such as physical symptoms. Or the unexpressed anger may come out in passive-aggressive forms, such as withdrawal from a relationship, disrespect, sarcasm, or a lack of cooperation. Sometimes anger may go unexpressed until it comes out in an outburst, or until it is inadvertently redirected toward an individual, group, institution, or condition that is entirely unrelated to the true source of the anger.

While anger is a challenging emotion to deal with in any context, it is especially challenging in the workplace. Why?

First, relationships at work tend to be interdependent, competitive, hierarchical, overexposed, and compulsory.

Second, work involves a constant juggling of and wrestling with competing interests among yourself, your boss, your peers, your subordinates, your vendors, and your customers.

Third, whether the stakes at work are monetary, psychological, or both, they are always on the line in every interaction at work for you and for everybody else.

Fourth, in the workplace, your circumstances and the circumstances of others can shift suddenly due to a wide range of factors beyond your control.

Focus on the Source

Whenever you diagnose anger as an issue for yourself, another individual, your team or your organization, you need to prepare to take action. The problem is that when we are facing workplace anger, most people are inclined to focus on the expressions of anger and the angry feelings. That’s because anger makes most people uncomfortable. When it’s occurring, we want to stop the yelling and get people to calm down. But that’s like trying to put out a fire by chasing the smoke. Anger is an effect; for every instance of workplace anger, there is at least one cause.

Of course, there are many instances when workplace anger must be dealt with in the most immediate ways. We do sometimes have to stop the yelling and get people to calm down. Still, the key to resolving workplace anger and tapping its benefits is to focus on the source. By identifying and dealing with the underlying causes of anger when it occurs, you can use the data anger provides to continually improve relationships, as well as systems, practices, and policies.

Each episode of workplace anger is stimulated by a unique source or combination of causes. Both academic and journalistic studies of anger often ask individuals what makes them feel angry at work. Such studies yield responses like this composite list:

  • The way my boss/supervisor treats me
  • Stupid company policies
  • Coworkers who don’t do their fair share
  • Not enough control over assignments
  • Not enough pay
  • Not enough benefits
  • Tight deadlines
  • Too much work
  • Associates making careless mistakes
  • Dealing with rude customers
  • Lack of cooperation
  • Stupidity/ignorance
  • How the company treats employees
  • How the company treats me

While different people point to the specific factors that anger them, the most common denominator is usually interpersonal dynamics—relationships between and among people. Every person has a need to value herself and to feel valued by others. The problem is that most people are reluctant to admit—even to themselves—when their self-esteem is threatened. Leading psychologists argue that anger is driven by emotions that attack self-esteem, such as betrayal, disapproval, deprivation, exploitation, frustration, humiliation, manipulation, restriction, and threat.

These emotions can be caused by any of a wide range of factors from broad, contextual circumstances to highly personal impulses. But we can point to five leading factors that routinely cause workplace anger:

  • Anger at “the system”: the economy or the bureaucracy or the boss or nature
  • Anger at perceived unfairness
  • Anger due to having one’s goals blocked either purposely or inadvertently
  • Anger at traits perceived as abhorrent, such as dishonesty
  • Anger flowing from hierarchical relationships

Dealing with Workplace Anger in Yourself

Before you can be effective in managing anger in other individuals, your team, or your organization, you must understand and deal with your own anger.

If you lead an active life, a busy career, and interact with a lot of people, you cannot isolate yourself from every external irritant, such as sitting in traffic jams or waiting on hold when dealing on the telephone with a bureaucratic organization. You will sometimes get less than your fair share, or your children will, or your parents will, or your friends will. You will not make every sale or meet every deadline. You will probably work with people who are less diligent, less competent, or less honest than you. You will probably have a boss, or a teacher, or a family member, or a customer who has power over you. And you will likely find yourself with power over others.

No matter how diligently you try to avoid anger, you will become angry at times. Be aware of people and circumstances that tend to make you angry and learn to recognize the early warning signs of anger in yourself.

Calm Yourself.  When you feel those early warning signs, the first step to effective anger management is to calm yourself with a physically purposeful interruption. Physical exercise or exertion in particular can help to dissipate your energy, while breathing, closing the eyes, and speaking or singing to yourself will relax your muscles, slow your accelerating heart, and reverse some of the adjustments your body is making to prepare you for aggression.Continuing any of these techniques for five to ten minutes—or taking a short walk or run—will give you the physical and temporal distance to think through the situation and break it down into its component parts.

Start Thinking. Once you’ve started calming the physical responses to anger, next you need to start thinking. In other words, think before you speak or act. Acknowledge for yourself that you are feeling angry and remind yourself that anger distorts your thinking. Be prepared to do some cognitive restructuring. Once you’ve stopped to think about your workplace anger in this way, you can assume a task orientation toward the anger rather than an ego-driven self-focus.

Express Your Anger. If you’ve calmed your physical response to anger and logically thought through your anger, then you should know who you are angry with and why. What’s more, you should have a more balanced view of the situation and probably a diminished level of anger. Most important, you know what you want to accomplish with your anger.

Express your anger in the right words to the right person at the right time. Then listen carefully. Don’t get distracted. Don’t interrupt. Hear what the other person is saying.

Seek Solutions. Finally, seek solutions to the underlying cause of your anger. First, you have to identify the underlying cause of your anger. Second, ask yourself, “Is the underlying cause something I can change or not?” If the answer is yes, prepare a plan of action. If the answer is no, you must determine how to change how you feel about the cause or at least how you respond to those feelings. In the end, you may simply have to let it go.

Dealing with the Angry Individual

In the workplace, you interact with many people—customers, vendors, peers, subordinates, and bosses. Any of them can become angry due to a wide range of causes. It is not always appropriate for you to engage the angry person directly. Sometimes you are better off avoiding the angry person and letting someone else take responsibility for managing the anger. You have to make that judgment for yourself in each case based on all of the circumstances.

There is, however, one case where you must take responsibility: When a person for whom you have direct supervisory authority in the workplace is angry, you have an obligation to deal with the situation.

In many cases, workplace anger emerges unpredictably from disruptions in work tasks or from the actions of others, and if you as the manager are present, you have to react in the moment. It is important to avoid the two most common pitfalls:

  • Do not ignore or shut down the anger through nonverbal communication that it’s not okay to express anger.
  • Do not attempt to shout down the angry individual and trump his or her anger.

Rather, you must acknowledge that feeling the anger and expressing it is okay, while escalating the anger and behaving aggressively is not acceptable. You can say, for example, “Your anger is important. The issue must be addressed. Let’s talk about it in an appropriate time and place.” Exhibiting calmness and a willingness to engage the employee are essential in these situations.

If the angry individual has harmed or is likely to harm others directly or indirectly, you must remove the person from the workplace at least temporarily and direct the person to professional help. In some cases, you may need to alert a retail security officer or law enforcement official. However, in most cases, you can engage the angry individual appropriately and effectively, try to mollify the situation in the short term, and address the underlying causes in the long-term.

Gather Information. Try to figure out what’s going on from at least two independent sources. If you cannot find the answers from independent sources, you will have to rely on the people directly involved. Bear in mind that they may have distorted versions of the information. Don’t play judge. By placing yourself in the role of information gatherer, you will diminish the potential defensive responses of the angry individual(s) and give yourself greater credibility to ultimately resolve the situation. Remember, when you are gathering information, you are trying to identify the underlying source of the anger.

Schedule a Meeting. Schedule a meeting preferably on neutral ground quickly, but not too soon. Give the angry person a few hours’ notice, so both of you have time to prepare for a potentially difficult conversation. Anger is exaggerated when people are distracted, stressed, or not feeling their best. Select a time when both of you can freely discuss the situation with as little distraction as possible. Don’t put off the meeting to another day; that will only leave time for the anger to fester. But it is important that you leave enough time to prepare in advance for the meeting.

Suspend Judgment. Question your assumptions and suspend judgment. You need to gather information. Rehearse what you are going to say—and what you are not going to say. While it is critical that you listen carefully before making any judgments, it may be necessary for you, as the manager, to give the angry person feedback about the episode in question.

Engage. When you meet with the angry individual, remember that your primary task is to listen. Let the angry person express her anger in her own words. Listen carefully and actively, but don’t interrupt. Guide the discussion only when necessary and with neutral, but probing questions like “How?” and “Why?” and “Can you be more specific?” Try to gather more data from the anger. Throughout the meeting, you should exhibit respect, sensitivity, open-mindedness, flexibility, and tolerance.

Evaluate and Take Action. If there is a clear source of the workplace anger, that source must be addressed. By now, you’ve already taken an important action by listening to the angry individual. After listening, you must evaluate the situation. Is the anger legitimate? If so, was the individual’s behavior appropriate? These are two different questions. You should take action on both.

First, provide constructive feedback on the way the individual expressed his/her anger. If the individual handled the situation well, you should offer positive feedback to reinforce the behavior. If the individual expressed his anger in a way that is unacceptable, you must address this matter directly. Explain your expectations for behavior in similar situations. In cases where the individual needs to develop anger management skills, direct him to a professional or provide coaching.

Second, seek a solution to the underlying cause of the anger. If you listen carefully, evaluate fully, and take concrete steps to address the true source of the anger, you will help to assuage the angry person’s anger. Use the data provided by investigating the anger to seize opportunities for improvement. That’s how you turn anger from a negative to a positive influence in your workplace.

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Overcoming Workplace Anger in Your Organization or Team

If you are in a position of leadership, then you should be assessing the workplace to identify strengths and weaknesses. One issue you should be tracking is anger. While you can cope with acute anger in yourself and other individuals, some teams and organizations suffer from pervasive workplace anger that derives from systemic causes.

If anger is a significant problem in your organization, you must take steps to address it. If the problem rises to the level of a crisis, you may want to consider a group intervention to clear the air and get everybody back on track.

Even if your particular workplace is not at the crisis stage, you should be aware of the systemic factors that tend to create widespread anger in organizations. It should be needless to say that organizations that treat people in ways that may be abusive, neglectful, unethical, or illegal will incur a great deal of much-deserved wrath. But many perfectly standard business practices make individuals feel undervalued, and these too are likely to cause pervasive workplace anger:

  • Arbitrary policies
  • Restrictive rules
  • Rigid hierarchies
  • Authoritarian managers
  • One-way communication
  • Limited information sharing
  • Closed (or zero-sum) competition
  • Narrow territorial boundaries
  • Minimal individual autonomy
  • Few rewards for good performance

In contrast, individuals are much less likely to feel and direct anger toward their employer when they have a reasonable degree of control over their work schedules, work space, tasks, responsibilities, learning opportunities, relationships, and compensation. The more control an individual has over these factors, the more likely she is to have very positive feelings toward her organization or team.

As well, most people place a great value on two-way communication. They want opportunities to contribute input on matters that affect them directly and indirectly. What is more, they want to receive recognition and rewards when they make valuable contributions. It should be said that, while organization-wide practices can have a huge impact, the most powerful factor is the relationship between managers and their direct reports. When managers are highly informed, engaged, and responsive, they tend to have relationships of trust and confidence with most of their direct reports.

However, it is not enough to say that a well-run organization with good managers is unlikely to have pervasive problems with workplace anger. Anger-management best practices should also be implemented

This article was first published in 2002 and updated August 13, 2018.

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