What is Workplace Anger?
By definition, anger is an emotional state that ranges from mild irritation to intense fury and rage. It is when it gets intense that we describe it as “boiling” and that is when it is likely to affect us physically – our heart rate and blood pressure go up and the levels of the hormones adrenalin and noradrenalin increase. “Workplace anger” is anger that occurs in the workplace as opposed to in other contexts.
What Causes Workplace Anger?
There are probably as many causes of workplace anger as there are employees in the workplace, but some of the leading causes are:
Stress – key symptoms of stress include:
- Increased aggressiveness
- Feeling disgruntled/moody/irritable
- Suppressed or unexpressed anger
- Little sense of humour
Failure to express ourselves properly – resulting in misunderstanding, frustration and offence
Personality Differences - for example:
- Some people pay attention to detail, some don’t
- Some people find decision making easy, some don’t
- Some people like plans, structure and routine, while others hate structure and routine and thrive on change
Cultural Differences - for example:
- Standing within the personal ‘space barrier’ of others during a conversation
- Eating smelly food at your desk
- Different table manners, or manners in general
Personal hygiene violations - for example:
- Bad breath or body odour
- Clipping fingernails at work
- Not cleaning up after yourself or being inconsiderate in the food preparation areas, toilets and pause areas etc.
Work practice annoyances - for example:
- Failing to follow rules and regulations
- Sabotage – deleting the print jobs of others so yours goes to the head of the queue
- Speaking overly loud during phone calls, or just generally
- Listening to loud voicemail messages on speakerphone
- Having personal arguments in full hearing of the whole office space
- Eavesdropping over cubicle walls
What are the Dangers of Workplace Anger?
- Loss of productivity
- Loss of staff morale
- Poor reporting by staff of potentially dangerous or unproductive practices – when the boss has a temper, staff become too afraid to report problems for fear that the temper could be directed at them
- Increased costs - When we are angry, we can lose control of our temper and engage in dangerous activities such as physical fighting and reckless driving, at great cost to the company
- Loss of respect - When we cannot control our temper we lose the respect of others, which undermines the development of healthy relationships necessary for high productivity
- Possible long term damage to our health.
How Do I Deal With Anger Constructively?
We cannot always work with people on a conflict free basis so there may be times when you get angry with someone at work. That is ok. Conflict is not a bad thing in itself. It is how you handle your anger and the conflict that counts.
Two key principles to remember:
- When you disagree, disagree with the idea not the person.
- When you criticise, refer to the behaviour not the person.
Please read 'Coping With Conflict' for valuable tips on how to create win-win situations despite having disagreements with colleagues at work.
Please read ‘Face up to Feedback (Giving and Receiving Constructive Criticism)’ for important insights into how to constructively criticise or chastise colleagues to ensure a positive response.
Managing Your own Anger
Managing anger does not involve getting rid of all anger, but rather using it to enhance our lives. Anger comprises both negative and positive aspects and anger management is about increasing the positive aspects and decreasing the negative aspects.
If you would like to read more about the positive and negative aspects of anger please refer to: “Anger Management: Taming the Tiger” an article found on my website.
Managing Anger in Others
It is one thing to control your own anger, but what do you do when someone else is angry? There are three ways to handle someone else’s anger. Use the most appropriate one for the situation. Do be aware, however, that when someone else is angry it causes us to react negatively. We may react with fear, anxiety or even also with anger.
You must first get your own emotions under control before you can successfully manage someone else’s emotion.
There are times when you know that something you said or did triggered anger in someone else – even though you didn’t mean to and may not know why they are so angry. In these cases apologise and get clarity.
You can say something like: “I am sorry that I have made you so angry, I didn’t mean to. I am not even sure what I did to make you so angry. Please tell me.”
Then give them all the time they need to rant and rave at you while you try to understand what it is all about, so you can address it. While they are ranting and raving, just listen. Don’t get defensive and try to explain yourself. Don’t interrupt. When they have felt heard by you they will calm down and then you can have your turn to explain. Sometimes there is nothing more to be said than just to apologise.
Sometimes you are not directly responsible for another person’s anger – but you trigger it off with some small thing. This is called ‘Excitation Transfer’. Excitation Transfer is the theory that emotional arousal in one situation can persist and intensify emotional reactions in later, unrelated situations. For example: You are driving to the airport and someone comes racing past you, swerves in front of you and nearly hits you. You are shaken. When you get to the airport, there is a delay at the security gate. Normally this would cause mild annoyance, but the arousal from your near miss in the traffic intensifies your reaction and you become enraged, rather than just annoyed.
If someone becomes angry with you as a result of Excitation Transfer, then you do not need to apologise – it is their reaction that is inappropriate. Don’t take it personally.
Diffuse the Situation
By diffusing the situation you may prevent the anger from spiralling out of control. But by ‘diffuse the situation’ we do NOT mean telling someone to “calm down”. There is nothing guaranteed to ignite more anger than telling an angry person to “calm down”! There are four simple steps you can follow instead:
- Label the other person’s emotional state
- Give yourself time to think before you react
- Consciously choose to ‘assume control’ and not respond with anger
- Engage with the other person constructively rather than with destructive talk or unhelpful
Start by labelling the other person’s emotional state. You could say something like, “I can see/hear that you are really angry”. Then wait for them to rant and rave. While they do so, it gives you time to decide what to say and do, and lets them give off steam. They will be more receptive to you after that. All the time choose not to respond with anger, but stay with the facts, remain objective and don’t get ‘off track’ and into past grievances, petty arguments or hurtful comments.
Remove Yourself From the Situation
If you cannot diffuse the situation and it is getting nasty, then remove yourself. BUT, and this is extremely important, NEVER just walk away. That will just make an angry person angrier and, after all, it is extremely rude and disrespectful. So how do you remove yourself from the situation in a respectful way? Follow three simple steps:
- Explain what you are going to do and why
- Explain when you will return
- Return as promised.
For example, you could say something like: “I can see that we are both getting very angry and we are starting to say nasty things. I think it will be better if we stopped this argument for now, before we say things we will regret. I am going to go for a walk to cool down. I will be back in about an hour and we can continue our conversation then.” Or
“This argument is getting us nowhere. I think it will be best if I go home now before we hurt each other. I will come round tomorrow evening and we can pick up this conversation then.”
Generally, a 24-hour ‘cooling down’ period is acceptable.
Of course, if you are in physical danger, please do not stop for explanations. Just get away… fast and immediately! Safety always comes first.
When Should I Seek Help?
The short answer is you should seek help when the anger is having a negative impact on your life.
That is, you should seek help when your inability to control your anger is causing you significant distress or impairment in social, occupational or other important areas of functioning. For example:
- When nobody at the office wants to work with you, because of your anger issues
- You have been called in to a work performance review and told that unless you learn to control you anger, disciplinary action will be taken against you or worse you might lose your job
- When you simply don’t like being an angry person anymore and wish to change the way you handle your anger
- When you notice that friends no longer invite you out, because they don’t like being around you anymore
- When your spouse or partner wants to leave the relationship because you cannot control your anger.
What Sort of Help Should I Seek?
Ideally, you should seek the help of a professional, such as a psychologist, who is experienced in anger management.
My own experience as a psychologist, who works with anger management issues, is that there is usually a deep underlying reason for the anger – the angry behaviour is due to some unconscious thought or feeling. When that unconscious thought or feeling is uncovered, it makes it much easier to understand the why (why you react with anger), which in turn makes it easier to do the how (how to manage the anger successfully).
The best advice I can give as a psychologist, life coach and trainer who works with anger management, is to seek help! There is no need to struggle and no need to suffer. Anger can be successfully managed if you understand the reasons for your anger and are taught positive and appropriate ways to manage it.
Based on this information journalist Katherine Graham wrote an article for Khuluma – the Khulula in-flight magazine. You can read the article here.
The article “Anger Management: Taming the Tiger” on my website also discusses anger management.