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Anger on the job


Rex Huppke

"Though it's a leap from being angry at the office to acting out violently, there is undoubtedly a connection."

"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.


10 comments so far

  • I don't get angry at much and am not perfect!

    However some former co-workers/managers needed a good slap upside the head.

    I would never hurt a fly and although can get angry, find it's much better to let it go ad if need be move on.

    I have to feel for the person that was shot dead - even if they were like Miranda Priestley from the devil wears prada - it's still an act of senseless violence.

    If it's gotten to the stage where you think about killing your co-workers/boss/yourself - seek some counselling and move on!

    Date and time
    September 24, 2012, 1:29PM
    • "At work, your ultimate goals should be to stay employed and to maintain the respect of your co-workers"

      I reckon there have been times that I would have earned more respect from my co-workers if I did give the boss a mouthful of expletives. But then I recall Karma, it gets them everytime.

      Greed is bad
      Date and time
      September 24, 2012, 1:34PM
      • one day the "modern" workplace is going to be recognised as the toxic "anti-human" environment it really is and then articles like this will become redundant.

        Date and time
        September 24, 2012, 4:53PM
        • If you can't hack it, don't do it. 100 years ago you'd be happy to be working 12h days in a factory. Now you're complaining you can't hack 8h days in air-conditioned luxury because a few people say mean things sometimes.

          Things to remember:

          1. What you do is unlikely to decide the fate of the human species (ok if you're a scientist maybe but then you wouldn't be in an office) so why get stressed?

          2. What a 'toxic' person says to you can't really hurt you - at worst you can always just leave and do something else (don't forget all those nice factory jobs out there).

          Don't get it
          Date and time
          September 25, 2012, 2:25PM
      • Of course it would be much simpler if you could sack people for being stupid and annoying the whole office. Still can't figure out how to change that cell on your spreadsheet despite being shown 10 times? You're fired.

        Date and time
        September 25, 2012, 11:31AM
        • Not knowing how to manage a bad boss can push the anger buttons in most of us. I found a new book - 5 Reasons To Tell Your Boss To Go F**k Themselves - recently that really helped me out. Not only did it get me to laugh about what was happening - I mean just imagine getting to say this to your boss and it's bound to make you smile. But it had some proven, practical ideas that helped me to take the power back from my boss (without swearing at them) and was much more useful at helping me to move on than getting angry or focusing on all my bosses misdeeds.

          Date and time
          September 25, 2012, 2:37PM
          • Yeah I remember at one job I did have a hate relationship with my boss and yeah because I can't keep my mouth shut I used to actually go off at him. Never got sacked he said I was a great worker therefore all he wanted is to resolve things. Well I resolved things by finding another job. When he heard that I was looking for another job he gave a pay rise lol $11.00 nice one.

            Now I am in a great job get on well with everyone especially my boss. However if I do have anything on my mind I'm not afraid to say it.

            Date and time
            September 25, 2012, 3:56PM
            • What a crock....documenting things and going to management...what if management are just as inept and useless as your colleagues?

              The temptation to beat the living crap out of the inept people is most definitely there!

              Only way to get around it is to leave the toxic environment and hope the next place isn't as bad!

              Aussie Bloke
              Date and time
              September 25, 2012, 4:53PM
              • Anger can also include a component of feeling powerless. So it's a good idea to think of where you actually do have power, which may not be impressive -- but still, it's yours. And Rifkin's recommendation to document your work is a good one. Not to mention keeping an eye on the job ads if the situation is really bad.

                I will also admit that there have been times I have sat in a toilet cubicle and silently prayed: "Dear God, I don't really want to see him/her die in agony, I just want them to shut up and leave me to get my work done in peace" (or whatever). It works for me, and I'm not even religious.

                Been there, done that
                Date and time
                September 25, 2012, 5:41PM
                • All these frustrated angry people in offices do need to let it out - but in different ways.
                  Our entire corporate system is geared toward sitting on one's posterior for much of the day without any physical release.
                  Many workplaces (ie banks), that earn billions in profits, don't even have gymnasiums for their employees. It's all about saving expenses for maximum profits for golden handshakes, executive bonuses and shareholders, and the people at the bottom, the employees are becoming more and more frustrated, after redundancies have left them with higher workloads.
                  If much of the workforce could have a decent hour to exercise, and also have facilities (showers, etc), then I'm betting anger wouldn't be so much of an issue.

                  Date and time
                  September 25, 2012, 5:55PM

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