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Is it ever okay to be angry in the workplace?


Dan Bobinski

Dan Bobinski

No doubt you’ve seen anger-based emotional outbursts. Sometimes the outbursts are just that – outbursts. A quick release of emotion combined with a loud voice and/or the slamming of a door. But sometimes anger is a prolonged hostility, full of antagonistic, harmful behavior. In my opinion, displaying anger in the workplace is like walking on thin ice. Especially if the anger is directed toward a person instead of a situation.

Anger is a built-in human emotion, so it’s okay to be angry. What’s not okay is using anger as a reason to intimidate or manipulate others.

In recent weeks we’ve seen entire cities and countries participating in massive protests because the populations are angry with how they’ve been treated. I won’t pass judgment on the rightness or wrongness of their causes, but it seems the amount of anger being manifested in those places is having ripple effects. In recent months I’ve noticed an increasing amount of violence occurring in normally respectful work environments.

In the United States alone, we have much anger because nobody wants pay reductions or cuts in benefits. Such anger has, in some cases, resulted in violence.

Incidents are on the rise in Canada, too. I recently read about the gate attendant at a landfill who was assaulted by a customer who drove through the gate after closing time. The attendant sustained a serious injury just because a man didn’t want to come back the next day to dump his trash?

India is also reporting a sudden increase in displays of workplace anger, and so is Europe, with EU-OSHA recently publishing a report that workplace violence is on the rise.

One of the problems with anger is that it can be contagious, so let’s pause for a moment. Let’s think about what drives people to be angry.

As I mentioned, anger is a common, natural emotion. People get angry when something they want to happen is not happening, or when something they don’t want to happen is happening. Just look at the examples above: Cuts in job benefits and even arriving late to the city dump are not something we want, so if we’re not choosing alternatives, displaying anger is an easy, default behavior.

The problem? Anger is cheap and easy. It’s efficient. It gets quick results. Choosing an alternative set of actions takes time, and in the business world, time is money. Far too many people see displays of anger as cost-effective ways to make things happen.

In the short term, displays of anger usually work. In the long term, the costs are staggering. Productivity is much lower in hostile work environments.

For those who display angry outbursts, it may help to realize that nobody ever “makes” someone else angry. People choose to be angry. It’s also a personal choice for one to act out of anger. To quell angry behavior, one must have alternative choices.

Think about when you’ve gotten angry. If you’re truly honest with yourself, you may be surprised to realize that other, better choices were at your disposal.

Essentially, relying on anger or intimidation as a way to get things done is pretty lame when healthier, more mature choices are at our disposal.

What not to do

If you deal with someone who frequently chooses anger, remember that anger is simply that person’s tactic for trying to gain (or regain) control. That being the case, one of the worst things you can say to that person is “calm down.”

Think about it. If an angry person already feels out of control, telling him or her to calm down is telling that person to acquiesce to someone else’s command, taking them further out of a feeling of control. This is why many angry people get even madder when told to calm down!

My best recommendation is simply acknowledging why the angry person is upset. A good way to do this is by paraphrasing. A standard line might be, “You sound pretty upset about ‘x'”. By acknowledging the reason for a person’s anger (even if you don’t agree with it), they feel heard. This gives them a sense of control, and once people feel in control again, their anger starts to subside.

In the final analysis, I have no problem with people being angry. It’s what people do with their anger that matters. Intimidation and violence have no place in a work environment, and besides, life is much too short to be putting up with such nonsense.

Obviously there are more situations about workplace anger than can be listed here, but this is a start. Nevertheless, the bottom line is that people with anger habits need to find alternative ways to stay in control, and those who endure antagonistic behavior can set healthy boundaries so they don’t have to put up with it anymore.

Dan Bobinski is a certified behavior analyst, best-selling author and director at the Center for Workplace Excellence. He makes his home in Boise. Reach him at (208) 375-7606 or dan@workplace-excellence.com.

About Dan Bobinski