Last Updated Oct 31, 2011 9:24 PM EDT
Unfortunately, the office is more of a pressure-cooker than ever, says Robert J. Bies, Phd, professor of management at Georgetown's McDonough School of Business: "People are really concerned about job loss and their futures. They are in high anxiety mode and they don't believe anyone cares about them."
When employees and managers feel unsupported, they have a tendency to lash out, says Bies, co-author of Getting Even: The Truth About Workplace Revenge And How To Stop It. "They take justice into their own hands. And often they are egged on and supported by co-workers for those actions."
Common anger triggers could include a perceived "rule" violation (for instance, the promotion of someone who doesn't deserve it), an abuse of power (from a tyrannical or corrupt boss), or a personal attack (public criticism, for example).
While some people will vent anger in a public outburst -- or, worse, a physical confrontation -- quiet vengeance is more common. "Small, everyday acts of revenge include refusing to help others, working slower, or [giving someone] the silent treatment," says Bies.
But neither revenge nor outbursts are useful to employees -- and both are likely to damage your reputation along with your your organization's efficiency and bottom line. Bies suggests these 4 strategies for keeping your cool -- as well as others' -- and creating a more peaceful workplace.
1. Use a Mediator Getting help -- whether from your manager or HR -- can help you defuse a heated situation. If your office doesn't have a professional mediator on staff or you don't feel comfortable sharing your issue with HR, talk to your antagonist in a calm way that reflects how you want to be perceived professionally. "Remember Don Henley's [remark] that 'there are three sides to every story: yours, mine, and the cold hard truth,' and let the 'offender' tell her side of the story," urges Bies. If you gain an alternate perspective, you just might be able to work the situation out rather than let it simmer.
2. Avoid Provocations A little respect can prevent anger from building in the first place, so the best way to keep tempers cool is to follow the Golden Rule. "This means don't disrespect [others], especially in public, keep your promises, and follow the rules," Bies says.
If you're a manager and have to give bad news -- denying a request for a day off, or reject a project proposal -- be sure to explain why. People can be disappointed in your decision without being angered by it, as long as it seems appropriate and the process is fair and transparent.
3. Breathe This is crucial advice. Whether you have to take a walk around the block to clear your head, or even sit in a bathroom stall for a breather, thinking before you speak can save your job. It's age-old advice, says Bies: "When angry, count to 10 before you speak. If very angry, count to 100."
4. Meet Anger with Compassion If someone on your team members does erupt, try to choose compassion over punishment. A Temple University study found that when managers gave additional support to angered subordinates, workplace tension dissipated. But when angry employees were punished or even fired, the researchers at Fox School of Business found no positive effect on office morale.