Think of the last time someone lost their temper in your workplace. Shouting at a colleague, walking out on meetings, slamming doors, kicking a bin. It might be funny when a manic Basil Fawlty vents his frustration on a broken-down car, or when a grumpy Victor Meldrew hurls abuse at one of his neighbours, but when it’s closer to home, especially in a controlled work environment, it’s not so amusing. It can be embarrassing to watch, and it’s even worse if we’re on the receiving end.
In the Gallantium video package, podcast and support materials covering anger we make it very clear that it’s never alright to express anger, or to exhibit angry emotions at work. The reason? Mainly because it has a negative effect on other people. It’s particularly harmful when it stems from someone in authority over others. But even if it doesn’t result in outright bullying behaviour, angry behaviour and fiery tempers will still upset the harmony and equilibrium of a positive working culture.
When it might be OK to express anger: angry or violent responses
So far, so good. But let’s be honest, we’re all prone to anger from time to time. If we stub a toe or accidentally whack a thumb with a poorly aimed blow of a hammer, even the most virtuous among us is likely to curse. It’s likely to be worse if someone nearby is unwise enough to ask if it hurt! Of course, this is a mental reaction to physical pain and, like a kettle letting off steam, it’s actually a useful, healthy response.
Perhaps we would all forgive an angry outburst at work if it stemmed from a minor injury.
Perhaps we would all forgive an angry outburst at work if it stemmed from a minor injury. Anger can also be good if it’s a reaction to some form of injustice in a poorly run workplace. Examples might be poor pay and working conditions, sexism, ineffective internal processes or lack of investment in environmental policies. If the resultant anger is channelled and used to influence positive change, then it can arguably be a good thing and morally right. The trick is to make sure that the anger is not overblown, but rather used to unite colleagues and create a rational, compelling argument for change.
Taken a step further, anger in mild form can be seen as an outward expression of frustration. Suppose no-one at work ever got angry. It might sound like a perfect, utopian place to be but how could managers ever understand and gauge morale and the general mood? Employees sometimes need a visible way to show that they are irritated by colleagues, finding deadlines unachievable, or concerned about the organisation’s future. As leaders, managers might do well to understand frustration as a useful indicator of mood and to approach it with an open and enquiring mind. For example, it could ultimately mean that the employee simply cares. That’s a positive trait for any organisation. By determining the cause and whether the frustration might be justified managers can, if necessary, rectify the situation. We should also recognise that we often see some of the milder hallmarks of anger, assertiveness, strength and high energy, as good attributes for someone in a leadership role.
What about some other scenarios? What happens if someone cuts us up on the road or takes our parking space, if someone insults us, criticises us or belittles us? Again, most of us might sympathise. After all, how else would you expect someone to react? Surely not with unalloyed pleasure. However, there’s a big difference. Here the trigger for an angry reaction is in our minds rather than something physical or permanent. That means that the anger is potentially controllable – we can contain it if we choose to. For that approach to be successful we have to be very disciplined, but it can be learned and developed over time.
Deep breath time
Knowing that we should never direct our anger towards others is always going to be important, especially for people with authority over others. There is plenty of guidance for anger management to be found elsewhere but suffice it to say, if we can recognise when our anger levels are rising then we can try and avert further escalation. We need to train ourselves mentally to have a pre-determined plan ready for dealing with it. Acceptance of irritations outside of our control, and acknowledging that we can’t always affect the outcome is important. Equally, taking a few deep breaths or even a change of scene will usually help. Perhaps if you’re alone or out on the road, you can listen to some relaxing music – it can be incredibly calming.
Manage anger and negative emotions
Before all of this of course, it’s best to recognise the things that are likely to make us have a negative emotion in the first place, feel those rising emotions and high blood pressure and to tackle the cause whenever possible. Unfortunately, if you’re predisposed to anger like Basil Fawlty or Victor Meldrew, then you’re going to have your work cut out. So do all the prep work, identify stressful events, what makes you trigger angry in your work and personal lives then accept it is a natural emotion, take a few moments, maybe gets some fresh air and protect your mental health and physical health so that it can make a huge difference. For everyone else’s sake though, it’ll be worth it.