Managing Anger at Work

Last Updated Nov 9, 2007 4:28 PM EST

Anger is an emotional reaction to a threat, whether real or perceived. When it is triggered, it often results in a sudden outburst of energy directed against the person or thing that caused it—or something that symbolizes that person or thing. Anger is reactive. Therefore, it is usually expressed before we have had a chance to think about and control our response. Often anger is frightening to bystanders, not to mention the person towards whom it is directed.

If anger is not expressed, it can seep out as passive-aggressive behavior. This behavior is difficult to manage because it is hidden, and often denied. Organizations have different thresholds of tolerance toward the expression of anger, but generally speaking, it is considered to be inappropriate to vent extreme feelings at work—which is why, sometimes, workers adopt passive-aggressive behavior.

What You Need to KnowI have someone in my team who seems to have a very short fuse and barely a day goes by without him shouting and causing a commotion. What can I do about this?

Have you tried giving him feedback? Often, we are unaware of the effect we are having on others and need prompting to make a change. You might try setting some anger management goals for the person in your team such as withdrawing from the situation and breathing deeply before responding. If this fails, try referring him to your organization's Employee Assistance Program, if you have one, or suggest that he consult with a counselor or psychologist.

I seem to be the recipient of a lot of anger from my direct reports. I try hard to give them the resources and support they need but it doesn't seem to be appreciated. What's going on?

It may be that your direct reports are angry at the organization and feel free to express it to you as the only representative that may listen. Try digging for the reason beneath their anger. Perhaps they feel that they are not rewarded sufficiently for their contributions, that the policies are punitive, or that they creativity is dismissed by "the way we do things around here." If you can get to the root cause, you may be able to influence a change up the line.

I work in a very intense and volatile environment, and it is often difficult to manage my own angry outbursts, yet alone anyone else's. What can I do?

You may find it helpful to develop some "space" and increase your capacity to deal with the intensity of your working environment. What do you do to relieve your stress? Have you tried yoga or meditation, both of which enable you to change your brain waves from Beta to Alpha; the waveform that reduces stress and promotes creativity and peak performance?

What should I do if someone is out of control with anger?

There is no point in remaining in the presence of someone who is too angry to see or hear you. There are times when you just have to walk away, especially if it looks as if things might get violent. However, if you develop a habit of walking away when things get a little heated, you may be responsible for escalating the frustration that someone feels, especially if that person gets the impression that you are judging him or her.

What to Do

It perhaps need not be said that overt (or covert) anger is disruptive and can lead to a whole host of outcomes. Certainly, whether we express it or not, anger can create stress among those in close proximity to it and can lead to a loss of productivity, absenteeism, and illness. Increasingly, it seems, we hear cases of anger erupting in the workplace and resulting in violence—against office furniture, a computer, or worst of all, against a person.

Unfortunately, an expression of anger often triggers an angry response. This can very quickly spiral out of control until both parties are "blind and deaf" with anger, whereupon they lose their objectivity and control; it becomes a personal attack; and the limits of heated expression are unknown.

If we are to create productive, creative, and happy work environments, we must make sure that frustrations have somewhere to go before they build to a point where they cannot be contained. This means widening the communication repertoire and encouraging a move from aggressive or passive-aggressive behavior, to assertive behavior, which pivots on mutual respect.

Take Steps to Manage Suspected Anger
  • Try to observe the signs that anger is brewing and distance yourself sufficiently so that you do not take it personally. The early signals are often covert and may be seen in people's body language or through their dismissive or sarcastic comments. It may also be signaled by a general lack of enthusiasm, disengagement, or increased levels of absenteeism.
  • Using an assertive communication style, give some feedback to the person you believe is angry. This takes the form of: "When you …. It makes me feel …. " Then you can ask a direct question. Focus on the behaviors so that you are not criticizing them personally. Therefore, the feedback becomes: "When you turn away from me, it makes me feel as if you are not listening. Have I said something to upset you?"
  • Try not to "reason" the person's answers away or deny his or her feelings, having shared your own, but enter
  • into a dialogue, giving each other feedback, so that you can clarify and understand what is going on for each of you.
  • Find a point of agreement and build from there. You can do this explicitly by saying something like: "I quite understand where you're coming from. I'd feel the same if I were you." Having validated their anger, you can then start finding a way forward by outlining some choices.
  • Confirm your agreement and repeat your understanding of the outcome. This may sound formal and somewhat contrived, but if you go through this process with an absence of judgment and a genuine regard for the other, you can make good progress. But what happens if someone has already flown off the handle?!
Take Steps to Manage Actual Anger
  • When someone is really angry, there is a lot of energy flying around, and the only way to intervene is to match the energy—but not the sentiment. For instance, you might raise your voice and say: "I REALLY UNDERSTAND WHY YOU ARE SO ANGRY!"
  • Once you have grabbed the other's attention, you can begin to lower your voice to encourage the person to lower his or her energy level. This is called "mirroring and matching" and it can be used to encourage people into rapport with you.
  • Do not assume that you know the cause of someone's anger or that they are responding unreasonably to something. Try to reach a point of understanding by checking how they feel about the situation and their interpretation of it. From this point, you can negotiate from a position of mutual understanding.
  • Validate the person who has demonstrated anger and listen attentively to what they have to say. All too frequently, people feign listening while really, they are just rehearsing their responses while the other person is speaking.
  • Often we learn something about ourselves from someone else's strong reactions, particularly if they are directed toward us. Be open to this learning and try to show your appreciation to the other for drawing your attention to something that will help you manage your relationships in the future.
Take Steps to Manage Your Own Anger
  • When we get angry, there are often short term benefits: We get what we want; we experience having power over others; people "respect" us; we get heard; and so on. Firstly, try to understand what your payback is for getting angry.
  • We can feel anger physiologically. We can often sense when it is coming on. Thoughts like: "Here I go again!" occur to us when we are being gripped by an angry reaction. When you sense these feelings in your body, you can choose to react differently if you want to.
  • Find some strategies that work for you to dissociate from your anger. This could be: thinking about something else, breathing deeply, visualizing something tranquil and pleasant, distracting yourself with an activity, or drinking a hot cup of tea.
  • Give thought to how you would like to react and step through your preferred scenario deliberately. Giving yourself time out to think through your options and the likely outcomes of these options is a helpful step in managing your own anger.
  • Enact your strategy and celebrate your success. You are on the path of mastering your own emotions rather than letting your emotions master you!
What to AvoidYou Suppress Your Anger

Often people suppress their anger and it turns into smoldering resentment that can last for years. Not only does this spoil our long term relationships but it festers inside us while trying to find an escape route. All too often this escape route is passive-aggressive behavior that is picked up by others through snide, sarcastic comments, "poor me" behaviors, or undermining body language. Being honest about how you feel and dealing with it in the present is a good way of avoiding seepage of this sort. Stand up for yourself assertively and give feedback so that the anger can be dealt with out in the open.

You Avoid Dealing with Anger

Because anger is an emotion that is feared, people tend to find strategies that enable them to avoid it. They may dismiss themselves from the scene altogether, or they may resort to the use of wit and jokes. Humor is a great way of diffusing anger, but use it appropriately and not as a matter of course. If people feel that their feelings are being swept away in a well-honed joke, they will feel dismissed and invalidated. There is nothing like not being taken seriously to fan the flames of anger.

You Fail to Prepare

Sometimes anger emerges when people are nervous or caught by the unexpected. If you are responsible for delivering surprising or shocking information, try to manage your approach carefully and prepare the ground a little beforehand. Put your feet in the shoes of your recipient and ask yourself how you would like to receive the news if you were them.

You Appear Patronizing

People sometimes overplay the "calm" card. Yet, rather than dispel anger, they only succeed in making it worse by appearing to be patronizing. The person observing an angry outburst does not automatically have the moral high ground, nor is it necessarily true that the angry person's view is "wrong." Try really listening and empathizing with what is going on for the other person. He or she may have a point!

Where to Learn MoreBooks:

Hartley, Mary, Managing Anger at Work. Sheldon Press, 2002.

Middelton-Moz, Jane, and Lisa Tener, and Peaco Todd, The Ultimate Guide to Transforming Anger: Dynamic Tools for Healthy Relationships. Health Communications, 2005.

Kelloway, E. Kevin, and Julian Barling, and Joseph J. Hurrell, Handbook of Workplace Violence. SAGE Publications Limited, 2006.

Nay, W. Robert, Taking Charge of Anger: How to Resolve Conflict, Sustain Relationships and Express Yourself Without Losing Control. Guilford Press, 2003.

Web Sites:

angermgmt.com: www.angermgmt.com/coworkers.asp

Anger Management Education: www.angermanagementeducation.com/workplaceanger.html

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