Anger on the job
"Though it's a leap from being angry at the office to acting out violently, there is undoubtedly a connection."
Anger exists in every workplace. We feel it, we talk about it, we carry it home with us and sometimes — mercifully rarely — it bubbles up with tragic consequences.
That's what happened recently in New York City, when a man who reportedly had been laid off from a store near the Empire State Building returned with a gun and killed a former co-worker on the street.
I was writing this column about managing workplace anger before the shooting happened. Once the news broke, it was clear this tragedy had to be addressed.
Though it's a leap from being angry at the office to acting out violently, there is undoubtedly a connection. So let's examine the anger and frustration we feel at work and the best ways to handle them.
"It's pretty normal to have feelings of anger," said John Rifkin, a licensed clinical psychologist and author of The Healing Power of Anger.
"And anger is seen as bad by a lot of people because if you get angry in a way that is out of your control and is spilling over into destructive behaviors, it's going to cause problems. But the reality is that lots of people are dealing with angry feelings a lot of the time and the question is how do you use that energy effectively."
We routinely get annoyed with a boss or co-worker and feel our anger and frustration must be vented. Maybe we daydream about tripping a supervisor as he walks down the hall. Or imagine cussing out a co-worker. Or take a cardio kickboxing class to exercise the anger away.
I'd always imagined these were fine therapeutic steps, as long as you never actually acted on any of your baser thoughts or pulled a muscle while kickboxing.
But Mark Reinecke, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University, said I was mistaken.
"That notion that we have to let it out is, in many ways, misguided," he said. "A lot of times, if you let it out, it just makes it worse. You just feel more enraged. The idea that if we give voice to our inner anger it will dissipate is probably wrong."
Rifkin agreed and noted that anger — when unexamined — can lead to passive-aggressive behavior, depression and a host of other problems.
He said there are two positive uses for anger: empowerment or self-nurturance.
Say your boss is making unreasonable demands, giving you too heavy a workload and claiming you're not doing enough. That would make any worker angry.
An empowerment path would be to thoroughly document the work you're doing, save critical emails from the boss, and be prepared should you need evidence to show human resources or a higher manager that you're being treated unfairly. Rather than stewing in your frustration, you're acting on your circumstances and trying to make them better.
A path of self-nurturance could involve telling yourself, "OK, I'm going to work hard at this for the next couple of hours and then I'm going to take a nice, long walk on my lunch break." That would be a means of stepping away from your frustration and doing something you enjoy.
"If your anger isn't directed in one of those ways, it's going to go into some kind of dysfunctional use," Rifkin said.
Before picking a path, however, Reinecke suggests making sure your anger is justified.
"Anger is a function of a number of different things," he said. "There has to be a current threat, it has to be directed at you or somebody close to you, it has to be malicious and intentional, and it has to be a violation of a rule or a standard."
We have a tendency in the workplace — particularly, I think, in this time of worries over job security — to be overly sensitive to comments and criticism. What Reinecke is saying is you must look, as unemotionally as possible, at the circumstances surrounding whatever it is that's making you mad.
"The essence of managing anger is that you want to ask, 'What's the threat? Is it that big a deal? Is the person really doing it to me or is the person doing it to everyone? Was it intentional? Is it something we should expect in the workplace, like an increase in work because of layoffs, for example?"'
That thought process alone is going to eliminate a lot of frustration and over-reaction.
So what do we do when we're justifiably angry?
"Many times anger is legitimate," Reinecke said. "But a lot of times when people get enraged, they focus on retribution rather than on their ultimate goal."
At work, your ultimate goals should be to stay employed and to maintain the respect of your co-workers. When you feel anger building inside you, it's sensible to pause and ask yourself if firing off a testy email or yelling at someone is going to help you reach those goals.
This advice from Reinecke and Rifkin is not New-Agey. They're not encouraging people take yoga classes or work on their calming breaths. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)
What they're saying is that anger is an emotion that can lead us to act before we think. We can more effectively handle that anger if we take a few moments to think before we act.
Then we're in control. And there's no need for evil daydreams. Or, God willing, kickboxing.