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Anger at work

July 3 2012 - What makes people angry at work and what do they do about it?

Working life is all about getting on with other people as a boss, a subordinate, or a colleague. It is impossible to survive and especially thrive in any organization without being able to deal with relationships and emotions, your own and those of other people. One of the most difficult emotions to deal with is anger. Yet it is something that is common in the working environment.

People get angry for many reasons. It is frequently associated with frustration or a sense of injustice: that some event or process is unfair or immoral. Many of us experience anger when we are criticised or witness other people being harshly treated. We get angry when we are expected to carry a heavier workload than others or see evidence of 'skiving', lying, denial of responsibility and employees taking 'sickies.' Even the manner in which we are told to do something can make us angry.

In a 2004 presentation, Jill Booth from the University of Central Lancashire described some of her findings:

Making work colleagues angry may have undesirable consequences for the offender. A common reaction from the angry person is to mete out some form of unofficial punishment such as:

  • gossiping about the offender
  • telling lies about them, or
  • giving them undesirable jobs

Long-term consequences include:

  • feeling chronically angry about the incident
  • quitting or considering leaving the job
  • allowing the anger to affect home life

The study consisted of in-depth interviews with 24 males and females in management and non-management positions in a range of sectors including retail, education and health.

Other common causes of anger were:

  • others' job incompetence
  • people being disrespectful (for example being rude or arrogant)
  • people simply failing to communicate and excluding the individual

Angry individuals adopted a wide range of coping strategies including talking to others, letting off steam, negotiating a resolution or cold-shouldering the offender. In a minority of incidents there was legitimate punishment of the offender.

Overall, the study suggested that anger at work may have long as well as short-term consequences for both the individual and their organisation. Taking steps to identify causes of anger and reduce it may be worthwhile.

Responding to anger

Conventionally, anger at work has been regarded as a 'bad thing', especially when it is associated with aggression, although there has been some recognition that it has both negative and positive attributes. Individuals prone to expressions of anger have tended to be seen as 'difficult' or 'disruptive' - even if anger is a reflection of their passion for the job - and sometimes sent on anger management courses. However, according to Dr. Deanna Geddes from Temple University Fox School of Business even outbursts of extreme emotion can be beneficial if they are dealt with compassion. In a 2011 study "The trouble with sanctions: Organizational responses to deviant anger displays at work," in the journal Human Relations written by Deanna Geddes and Dr. Lisa T. Stickney of the University of Baltimore, the authors argue that more supportive responses from managers and colleagues following displays of deviant anger can promote positive change at work. Conversely, sanctions or doing nothing do not achieve this.

In the article they state that "when companies choose to sanction organizational members expressing deviant anger, these actions may divert attention and resources from correcting the initial, anger-provoking event that triggered the employee's emotional outburst."

The researchers studied 194 people who said they had witnessed an incident of deviant anger at work and found no connection between firing an angry worker and solving underlying workplace problems. They also found that it took only one demonstration of support for an irate employee from a manager or co-worker to reduce tension in the workplace.

According to the article, supervisors who recognize that they may have played a part in angering an employee "may be motivated to respond more compassionately to help restore a favorable working relationship."

And if management shows "an active interest in addressing underlying issues that prompted employee anger, perceptions of improved situations increase significantly."

The writers consider that "Business codes of conduct are often about what we shouldn't do as an angry employee in emotional episodes, while few, if any, tend to address our role as observers of emotional episodes. Such guidelines, if available, could expand to include positive suggestions for those who witness, judge and respond to angry employees - formally or informally."

Dr Geddes and Dr. Ronda Roberts Callister of Utah State University have devised a Dual Threshold Model of workplace anger expression. This makes a distinction between suppressed and deviant anger with the zone or space between the two being critical for the achievement of positive change. The model pinpoints 'muted anger' (complaining to colleagues and friends who do not have the authority to resolve a problem) as the most ineffectual response.

"Some of the most transformational conversations come about through expressed anger," Geddes concluded.



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