Anger in the Workplace

W.D. "Dub" Rogers, PhD.

Going Postal" is a term that people often use to describe someone who acts out their anger at work. This would be one of the extreme "costs" of anger that was handled poorly. There are other costs that may not make the headlines but are very real. There may be lost productivity due to the time and energy invested in the expression of anger. There may be lost efficiency when co-workers fail to communicate or sabotage the work of others or equipment through passive aggressive behavior. Another loss may be that of good workers who tire of working in a conflicted atmosphere. The cost of not managing anger in a healthy way is high for individuals as well as for employers.

A beginning step to managing anger in a healthy way is to gain an understanding of anger. When people are asked to identify a "bad" emotion, 95% will start with anger. The apostle Paul, states, "Be angry but sin not." We also see that Christ was angry, as was the Father, but without sin. There is a distinction between the emotion of anger and the behavior that is used to express anger. Emotions can work for you or against you. For example, fear may warn you of danger or immobilize you. Schafer (p. 380) refers to positive anger and negative anger.

Negative anger is a harmful and nearly always avoidable part of the human experience. Positive anger, on the other hand is a constructive, positive experience.

The difference can be seen in a progression of steps.

Negative Anger

  • " I want something. "You must act like I think you should."
  • " I am not getting it. " You are not meeting my expectations."
  • " This frustrates me. "I am boiling at what you just did."
  • " This is intolerable. "I cannot stand it."
  • " You are to blame for my frustrations. "You make me so mad."
  • " Therefore you deserve to be punished. "I'll teach you not to do that again."

Positive anger may start the same, but it ends differently.

  • " I want something. "I sure like peace in the office."
  • " I am not getting it. "People keep making noise in the hallways."
  • " This frustrates me. "I cannot concentrate or complete my work because of the noise."
  • " This is unacceptable. "This has to stop."
  • " I am motivated to do something to improve the situation. "I am going to ask that conversations be carried on in their offices or the break room."
  • " I will take constructive action to remedy the source of my frustration. "Excuse me, would you mind visiting in the break room or your office."

Negative anger usually leads to hostility and aggressive action. It causes internal distress within oneself. Positive anger can lead to helpful actions where frustrations are addressed. Positive anger can also increase our understanding of ourselves.

Anger is often a secondary emotion. Much like an iceberg, anger is the tip while other emotions lie underneath. The other emotions may be fear, hurt, guilt, or powerlessness. Painful emotions do not happen in a vacuum; they are tied to the way we think. If a value or goal is blocked, or a perceived right or expectation is violated, anger is often the first emotion that is recognized or expressed. If we will take the time to examine the situation, new insights may be gained. To focus blame on another person may inhibit our gaining the insights. Anger may actually cover another emotion. It may cover embarrassment or shame. The actual event that occurred could be what someone said, such as "That won't work." There may have been emphasis placed on the word THAT. It may actually be our own beliefs that cause us to perceive that our adequacy is being challenged and feel the need to defend our ability. Beliefs and values are not always healthy and they can be modified. When we are angry, the ability to see options is diminished and we may move into an either/or mindset or a win/lose mode of behavior. If we can use the emotion as a red light that says "stop and think," then the emotion can begin to work for us. Asking myself what options I have helps me stay out of the "hostility loop." It is helpful to keep in mind that I may have been misunderstood or there may be information that I do not have or understand. In her book, The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense at Work, Suzette Elgin identifies verbal attack patterns and the techniques to keep from being pulled into "The Verbal Violence Two-Step."

Answering several questions in writing may help clarify the picture.

  • " What emotions do I feel?
  • " What actually happened?
  • " What are my beliefs or interpretations about what happened?
  • " What are my choices for action?

Being aware of our limits is important when dealing with conflict. If I am hungry, stressed or tired, my emotional resources are diminished. The probability of expressing my thoughts well with appropriate emotional strength and intensity is greatly reduced. It is more difficult to move toward understanding and much easier to move toward "winning" the conflict and losing in other important areas. You might make a statement to buy time when facing a potential conflict, such as, "You may be right. Let me think it through and get back to you." (State a specific time.) This allows time to think as well as time to calm down. If you are able to express yourself better in writing, then make use of that mode of communicating rather that verbalizing your thoughts. This allows you to choose words that are not inflammatory and to focus on the behavior rather than attacking the person.

Finally, it is best if I can leave issues that are not work related outside the workplace. Hang them on a stop sign as you enter your workplace. They will most likely be there when you come back by as you leave. A time to read, meditate, pray, or journal before you go to work will produce great dividends at work.

Schaffer, Stress Management for Wellness, 4th ed., 2000, Harcourt Publishers Elgin, The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense at Work, 2000, Prentice Hall, Inc.