In a nutshell
1. What is anger?
The original purpose of anger, way back in the development of humans as a species, was to get us ready to fight, so it increases our heart rate and blood pressure to speed up the flow of blood to our muscles; it also sharpens our senses and makes more adrenalin.
- It’s not the same as aggression: anger is an emotion, whereas aggression is unacceptable behaviour.
- Anger can be a good thing if properly channelled to a positive end. It is a perfectly natural emotion, and a powerful source of energy.
- It not actually an instantaneous reaction to external provocation. It’s our choice.
- Chronic anger is linked with many physical ailments, some of which are life-shortening.
- Suppressing anger turns it in on you.
- Simply letting your anger out can feed the furnace and lead to wild outbursts of towering rage.
2. Causes of anger at work
Causes of anger can be many-layered, whether at work or elsewhere.
- The topmost and most easily recognisable layer is triggers.
- Triggers are individual: what irritates one person will leave another unflustered.
- Whatever the trigger, anger tends to flare up when we feel trapped or tormented or that somebody is doing (or intending) us harm or treating us unfairly.
- Underlying causes include the violation of personal belief systems, learned behaviour, and recent experiences, such as bereavement, bullying or financial problems.
Whatever its causes, the effects of angry outbursts in the workplace are likely to be expensive and draining.
- Suppressed anger may underlie bullying and harassment, stock ‘shrinkage’, absenteeism and high staff turnover, low morale, passive non-cooperation, careless accidents and injuries, and poor customer service.
- Angry people also tend to be over-optimistic and make risky decisions that, depending on their position, may adversely affect organisational outcomes.
- Anger can be motivational. It can fuel superhuman effort: ultra-go-getting classic alpha type-A behaviour, causing the person to work hard for long hours, with a laser-like focus on a particular outcome.
- Anger may fuel go-getting behaviour, but chronically angry individuals tend to die younger.
4. How big a problem is it?
Anger takes many forms, and can emerge as bullying, absenteeism, withholding information, low morale and more. According to a 2008 Mental Health Institute report, Boiling Point, approximately
- One in two of us has reacted to computer problems by hitting or screaming at our pcs (or at our colleagues). Almost as many regularly lose our tempers at work
- One in three has a close friend or family member with trouble controlling their anger
- One in four worries about how angry they sometimes feel
- One in five has ended a relationship because of the other’s behaviour when angry
5. The process of anger
Anger is a primeval survival strategy. With fear, it is part of the fight-or-flight mechanism.
- It starts with provocation, which makes us feel assaulted or insulted, and treated unfairly, uncaringly, unkindly or with disdain.
- The perceived threat to our wellbeing prompts a negative thought which sparks the physical/chemical preparation to attack or run.
- You now react.
- The reaction will produce a result, which may or may not be what you wanted.
6. Avoiding violence and aggression
Only some ten per cent of the times people get angry involve aggression or violence, often when they feel unheard. Avoiding it is a matter of acknowledging their right to their emotions, and helping them find better ways of dealing with the issues.
- To give yourself time to avoid violence, look for tell-tale signs, such as muscle tension, changes in skin tone and in tone of voice.
- Protect yourself emotionally and physically.
- Really listen to them.
- Acknowledge their emotional state and its cause.
- Encourage them to relax physically.
- Help them understand and ask them to explain calmly to you why they are angry.
- Suggest arranging a time and place to discuss ways forward and plan suitable action.
7. Managing your own anger
There are two aspects to managing your own anger: learning how to manage it in the moment, the flashpoint, and learning long-term strategies for avoiding angry moments as a general rule.
- In the moment, the first thing to do is to stop to give yourself time, lower your shoulders, take a deep breath, and try to imagine a reason for the person’s behaviour.
- Long-term avoidance strategies include venting anger through physical activity, taking up a calming activity such as yoga, seeking greater self-awareness and learning life skills such as assertiveness,.
8. Managing other people’s anger
Somebody else’s anger can be alarming, whether you’re the target or an on-looker. As a manager, it’s part of your duty of care for other employees to do something about such outbursts, even if you’re scared yourself.
- Take a deep breath to get more oxygen into your brain and help it work better; drop your shoulders to release any physical tension.
- Don’t take it personally.
- Help them calm down: suggest they take a deep breath and so on.
- Listen to what they say and validate their right to their opinion.
- Help them to explain calmly to you what they’re angry about and why.
- Respond calmly; you don’t have to appease them – it’s about assertiveness.
- Agree action (with timescales), if appropriate, to deal with the immediate cause of anger.
- Consider the wider context: there may be underlying factors to address, either to forestall future similar outbursts, or for the on-going wellbeing and effectiveness of the individual, the wider team, or indeed whole organisation.
- Encourage open effective communications with and between your staff.
9. Managing yourself in the face of anger
Many of us confuse anger with aggression and closely link it in our minds to violence. Yet research suggests that only about ten per cent of incidents of anger involve aggression. So the reality is that 90 per cent of anger is expressed though words – discussion, however forthright. So the trick is to plan your tactics for an exchange of views, however full and frank!
- Take a deep breath to get more oxygen into your brain and enable you to think more clearly.
- Imagine yourself safe behind a toughened glass screen, looking down on events from above.
- Drop your shoulders.
- Imagine the other’s having a bad time.
- Listen to what they say – to learn from them and clarify facts – and then state your point of view clearly and calmly.