Managing anger at work

Wednesday, 29 June 2011 00:29 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

For several senior and middle managers, anger at work is a very common day-to-day occurrence. Short temper could be owing to several factors, i.e., pressure from his/her superior for deadlines and deliverables, lack of maturity to deal with situations, family/spouse pressure at home which drives the manager to an ‘edge,’ seeking superior power through the exercising of anger, release to tension building up within and so on.

There may be many triggers for angry outbursts at work – the trick lies in learning how to diffuse and deal with them in a way that leaves you in control of the situation, says psychologist Dr. Brunda Amrutraj.

Anger is a normal human reaction and many of us get angry at some point. It is a protective emotion as it guards us against threats, hurt, violation, insults and helps in getting what we want. Think screaming toddlers and kids’ temper tantrums and you realise that we learn to express anger very early in life.

Endangering relationships

In primitive man, anger was a flight or fight reaction and an instinctive response that helped him to either protect himself from danger or flee from it. Today, however, anger is seen as a negative, destructive emotion.

As the name itself suggests, anger is a negative gush of emotional reaction. Think about it: anger is only one letter short of danger. Uncontrolled anger becomes destructive not only to oneself but to others as well, particularly at work.

Research has shown that excessive anger can seriously damage our physical health and the way we think of ourselves and others. It also affects our self esteem and self image. The hurtful and mean things people tend to say when angry also interfere with day-to-day relationships.

It may be prudent for managers under pressure and who find it difficult to cope with such pressure and negative factors to consider attending the one-day programme put together by McQuire Rens and Jones on ‘Stress, the Effects and How to Manage’ on 7 July at Cinnamon lakeside where Dr. Mahendra Perera PhD, MD,  MRCP, Consultant Psychiatrist, Melbourne, Australia and I will speak on, among other areas,  impact of stress and anxiety on our health, organisational situations that cause stress, organisation based copying mechanisms and  towards a healthier life.

What is the reason for the growing wrath and anger around us? Picture a typical day. You have an important meeting to attend, your morning alarm fails you, you jump out of bed, rush around to finish your morning chores, you are already late and then you are stuck in a traffic jam! The pressure mounts as office calls to say the boss is asking for you and the meeting is about to start – as you walk into the meeting room, your boss shouts at you and you either shout back or keep quiet and fume inside.

On the one hand managements keep yearning for teams and teamwork. Teamwork is all about relationships. Whatever the ingredients that we can come up for teamwork, i.e., communication, understanding, tolerance, patience, sharing, forgiving, supporting, etc., lead to one thing and that is ‘relationship’. The reactions of anger, if uncontrolled, will lead to attacking and destroying relationships.

Dealing with an angry boss

Anger at work is not uncommon. All of us have faced angry bosses who seem to behave irrationally. Take Sunethra’s example: every morning she wakes up in a state of panic thinking of getting to work and having to deal with her angry boss.

She says “I cannot bear it when he barges into my cubicle yelling and screaming at the top of his voice, using abusive language. I do not know what happens to me – I just cannot think and then he gets even more irritated with me!”

When confronted with an angry boss, most employees choose to remain quiet and do not respond. But typically, they find ways to release their pent-up frustration either on their families or subordinates later. Anger affects the morale of employees and very often they choose to find alternative jobs rather than continue to face such unacceptable behaviour. Yet, job hopping may not always be an option.

It is important to deal with an angry boss constructively as problems with a difficult boss do not get resolved by themselves. One needs to actively take control of the situation. Communicating the anger in non-destructive ways is of paramount importance. Here is what you can do:

  • When the other person is angry and is shouting, avoid justifying actions or behaviour that has perhaps triggered the outburst. This will only add fuel to the fire.
  • Listen carefully to what he/she says as it will help you understand his perspective or what he is upset about.
  • Remain cool through the outburst and then choose an appropriate time to communicate your own point of view.
  • Try to understand the nature and personality of the boss, understand situations that trigger the anger outbursts.
  • Reflect on the following questions: What does your boss do that bothers you? What is the impact of the angry outbursts on you and others? What is your goal or what is it you want to achieve by talking to the boss? What can you specifically do to handle such situations effectively? Who are the people you could involve who can help you to look at effective ways of dealing with the situation?

=Next, initiate a discussion with the boss where you can describe the problem behaviour clearly and the impact it has on your productivity. This, of course, is easier said than done. But try it nevertheless. Also, discuss what you are willing to do to avoid situations that cause the angry outbursts and suggest what you would like him to do in situations when he is very upset with you. Focus on what can be done to avoid such angry situations in future. Try to arrive at a mutually-acceptable solution.

Learning simple anger management skills at work can have a positive impact in feeling less frustrated and angry, improving productivity, building relationships, thinking more clearly and gaining more control of work-life balance. All in all, good anger management skills contribute to an effective and efficient work culture. But most importantly, it makes for a better you!

Anger can be normal and healthy emotion that helps us instinctively detect and respond to a threatening situation. More than this, when it is properly channelled, it can be a powerful motivating force – we all know how hard we can work to remedy an obvious injustice.

However, it can also be an emotion that gets out of control, leading to stress, distress, being unhealthy and unhappiness. Uncontrolled anger can seriously harm your personal and professional life, because it can become incredibly destructive – to yourself and the people around you.

Anger is a well-developed coping mechanism that we turn to when our goals are frustrated, or when we feel threat to ourselves or to people, things and ideas we care about. It helps us react quickly and decisively in situations where there is no time for a careful, reasoned analysis of the situation. And it can motivate us to solve problems, achieve our goals, and remove threats.

Acting in anger can serve, therefore, to protect yourself or others. A positive response and constructive outcome can improve your self-esteem and self-confidence

On the other hand, a negative response can damage relationships and lead to a loss of respect and self-respect. This is particularly the case when we react instantly and angrily to what we perceive to be a threat, but where that perception is wrong. This can leave us looking very foolish.

So we need to learn to use anger positively, and manage it so that it is constructive and not destructive. Where situations are not immediately life-threatening, we need to calm down and evaluate the accuracy of our perceptions before, if necessary, channelling anger in a powerful but controlled way.

Anger management, then, is the process of learning how to ‘calm down’ and diffuse the negative emotion of anger before it gets to a destructive level.

People experience anger in many different ways and for many different reasons. What makes you angry may only mildly irritate one of your colleagues, and have little to no effect on another. This subjectivity can make anger difficult to understand and deal with; it also highlights that the response is down to you.

So anger management focuses on managing your response (rather than specific external factors). By learning to manage your anger, you can develop techniques to deal with and expel the negative response and emotions before it causes you serious stress, anxiety and discomfort.

Despite our differences in the level of anger we feel toward something, there are some universal causes of anger that include:

  • Frustration of our goals
  • Hurt
  • Harassment
  • Personal attack (mental or physical) on ourselves
  • Threat to people, things or ideas that we hold dear

We commonly experience these potential anger triggers in our daily lives. An appropriate level of anger that is expressed correctly helps us take the right action, solve the problem that is presenting itself, or deal with the situation in a positive manner. If we can learn to manage our anger, we will learn to express it appropriately and act constructively.

Workplace hostility can often be traced to attitudes that have little to do with the current employment situation in which workers find themselves. Deep-seated feelings of hostility toward other people because of their gender, skin colour, sexual orientation, political beliefs, or other factors are often firmly in place long before the person begins working at your company. Often, the small business owner faced with such an employee will have limited options available to deal with such problems; instead, he or she will concentrate efforts on making sure that those undesired attitudes do not disrupt the workplace.

Factors that cause workplace anger, on the other hand, can sometimes be addressed directly. While workplace anger sometimes can be traced back to prejudices that are at the root of deep-seated hostility, on many other occasions, work-oriented factors serve as the primary catalysts. Common causes of workplace anger include:

  • General harassment, whether sexual or some other form
  • Favouritism of one employee over another
  • Rejection (whether arbitrary or for good reason) of a proposal or project in which employee has big emotional investment
  • Insensitivity by owners or managers
  • Criticisms of employees in front of staff or clients
  • Depersonalised workplace environment
  • Unfair (or tardy) performance appraisals or criticism
  • Lack of resources for the employee to meet his/her objectives
  • Inadequate training
  • Lack of teamwork
  • Withdrawal of earned benefits
  • Betrayal of trust extended to manager or owner
  • Unreasonable demands on employees
  • Does not keep promises
  • Lack of flexibility on part of owner or manager
  • Poor communication
  • Feedback is wholly or primarily negative in tone
  • Absentee leadership (such as instances wherein needed disciplinary action is absent)
  • Micro-managerial environment in which staff decision-making opportunities are limited

Of course, sometimes a distinction must be made between legitimate and illegitimate catalysts of workplace anger. For example, an employee may express great anger over a negative performance review even though the appraisal was conducted fairly and honestly. Small business owners and managers cannot jettison basic principles of management simply to avoid making one of their employees angry.

Warning signs

Workplace anger is often sublimated by employees until they reach a point where they suddenly burst. This bursting point may manifest itself in a variety of ways. One employee may just yell at his manager, while another may impetuously decide to quit. Still others may resort to workplace violence or vandalism.

Small business owners and managers should acquaint themselves with the warning signs of hidden anger so that they can address the causes for that anger and hopefully head off an incident before it occurs. Other employees, meanwhile, may exhibit behaviour that is more obviously troubling. Following are a range of behaviours that may signal a need for intervention:

  • Sarcastic, irritable, or moody behaviour
  • Apathetic and/or inconsistent work performance
  • Prone to making direct or veiled threats
  • Aggressive and antisocial behaviour
  • Overreaction to company policies or performance appraisals
  • Touchy relationships with other workers
  • Obsessive involvement and/or emotional attachment to the job


Explicit workplace violence, sexual harassment, and episodes of discrimination garner the most headlines and receive the bulk of attention from consultants because of their potential legal impact on business enterprises. But researchers contend that simple bullying behaviour may be a greater threat to business health and productivity than any of the above-mentioned problems.

Sometimes bullying takes place between employees, but it often is most evident in supervisor-worker relationships, in which one person is perceived to wield greater power. “Bullying is not just the problem of an individual, however, but, where it exists, of the organisation and its culture as a whole,” stated Andrea Adams in Personnel Management. “Whether it is a bully’s persistent intimidation or their devious efforts to make a colleague appear professionally incompetent, these menacing tactics can be difficult to identify.”

She also notes that organisation bullying is often disguised by euphemisms that avoid calling the behaviour what it really is. “In America employee abuse, as it is called, is also referred to as ‘workplace trauma,’” wrote Adams. “It has been identified in research carried out by one psychologist in the USA as a more crippling and devastating problem for both staff and employers than all the other work-related stresses put together. There are always those who will put forward the argument that the making of snide remarks or jokes at other people’s expense is ‘a part of human nature,’ but office banter which is not really designed to offend is undoubtedly different to the persistent downgrading of people by any individual in a position of power.”

Adams noted that confronting bullies about their behaviour is often difficult: “Where bullying exists and someone is willing to tackle it, the bully will have to be addressed in some way and prevailed on to change. The way in which they see themselves will rarely tally with the view of those who are placed under attack.”

Small business owners and managers, however, should stand fast. Bullying behaviour generally does not take place in a vacuum; other employees are usually aware of the situation, and they should be consulted. Finally, owners seeking to eliminate bullying behaviour need to make it clear that anyone who is the victim of bullying tactics will receive their full support.

Peer conflict

Another common cause of workplace anger and hostility is peer conflict. Unlike instances of bullying, wherein one employee makes a conscious decision to engage in behaviour that is hurtful or uncomfortable for another employee, peer conflict is characterised by mutual feelings of animosity toward the other individual.

“Peer conflicts are typically caused by personality or perception differences, moodiness, impatience, or sensitive emotional states such as jealousy, annoyance, and embarrassment,” wrote Levesque. “When these rivalries evolve into skirmishes or outbursts, the conflict erupts and people are damaged. Since work relies heavily on the ability of people to interact in a cooperative and harmonious fashion, conflict between employees represents a serious breakdown of those two vital ingredients to effective work relationships.”

According to management theorist Peter Drucker, managers can pursue one of the following routes when attempting to resolve peer conflicts:

1.Convince both workers to accept a mutually agreeable view or agreement about the issue that was the cause of the conflict.

2.Support the position of one employee and reject the position of the other.

3.Make your own decision about the issue and force both people to comply with your perception.

“What is important for the manager to keep in perspective,” wrote Levesque, “is that the problem belongs to those in conflict and only they can resolve it, but they will need someone to help — you.”

Small business owners who find themselves mediating a peer conflict should avoid taking sides (especially if both workers’ views have merit), provide an objective viewpoint, keep the discussion from bogging down in tangents or name-calling, and help each worker to understand the perspective of the other. Finally, the small business owner’s overriding concern should be to explicitly restate his or her expectations of staff performance, including the ways in which staff members should behave toward one another.

(The writer is the Managing Director and CEO, McQuire Rens Group of Companies. He has held regional responsibilities of two multinational companies of which one was a Fortune 500 company. He carries out consultancy assignments and management training in Dubai, India, Maldives, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. He is a much sought-after business consultant and corporate management trainer in Sri Lanka.)

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