This is the second in a short series on emotion at work. Last month I tackled anxiety, this month I’m moving on to anger. I realised while writing this that there’s enough to say about handling your own anger at work to fill an article, so I’m saving other people’s anger til next time.
Anger tends to be the emotion we’re most wary of but in itself it’s perfectly healthy. It’s what we do with it that makes it scary. There are a number of unhelpful ways to handle anger and many of us have default settings, though they may vary between work and home, boss and team members and so on. See if you recognise yourself in any of these:
Shouting, swearing, banging the table, there’s no mistaking the anger here. If you come from a culture – or a family – where having a right old ding dong is how you resolve difference then this may seem quite normal, but it isn’t for everyone. People who erupt with anger are not generally afraid of conflict but may not recognise how intimidating it is for others. You may think that, after a burst of anger, you put it behind you and move on, but others are likely to be more wary of you in future. If you’re a manager, people may hide bad news for fear of your reaction. And don’t kid yourself that being feared is the same as being respected – it really isn’t.
Want people to know you’re angry but don’t really like confrontation? Why not sit glowering in the corner, occasionally tutting and rolling your eyes, while people try to coax you out of your bad mood? For added impact, keep ’em guessing about what’s wrong – “If I have to tell you, Darren, it just shows how little you understand”. Stereotypically this is seen as something women do, but I’ve seen men in high status positions play the same game – giving someone the cold shoulder because they didn’t realise they were supposed to hold the door open for him, for example. Being the moody one everyone tiptoes around is not going to make you popular, especially if you’re the boss.
If sulking feels a bit confrontational for you, you may prefer to maintain a facade that everything’s fine, while secretly seething and being quietly uncooperative. People may sense that something is wrong but they can’t be sure. You seem to go along with things but then you’re not happy and stubbornly keep doing things your own way. You’ll show ’em not to mess you about – except that no one actually knows what you want and you just leave people confused and frustrated.
If you’re really scared of conflict then feeling angry is likely to be swiftly followed by feeling anxious. If you’re angry, something is wrong, which means you might have to say something and that’s scary, so better to talk yourself out of it, swallow the anger and accept whatever it is that caused the anger in the first place. Of course, if you do this too often you may become a complete doormat, perpetually taken advantage of by others.
None of these is a sensible way to handle anger but I know I’m not alone in using them at times. So what should we be doing instead?
Here’s a five point plan:
1. Get a grip
You have a right to be angry. You don’t have a right to behave badly (or certainly not without consequences). Separate your feelings from your behaviour and at least get your behaviour under control. If you can’t control yourself, try and remove yourself from the situation to calm down (a loo break maybe?). If you have to stay in the situation, slow right down. Pause before responding, unclench your jaw, unfold your arms, breathe slowly and deeply. Notice what’s happening in your body and try to relax the bits you’ve tensed.
2. Distinguish anger from anxiety
If you’re really practised at swallowing your anger, you may not even notice it’s there. You might go straight from ‘something’s wrong’ to anxiety. Ironically, many people who erupt with anger have the opposite issue – they’re actually quite fearful but anger feels more powerful and they use it to mask anxiety. I once saw a man violently attack a complete stranger on a train with the justification “What else was I supposed to do? He called me gay?”. I could only wonder at the level of fear this guy must have had about a) different sexuality and b) perceived loss of face to react with terrifying rage to such a trivial incident.
If you’re used to feeling angry, anxiety may be a new and uncomfortable emotion. The same is true the other way round. Try not to dismiss these unfamiliar feelings as they’ll help the next bit.
3. Get a reality check
Like all emotional reactions, you can see anger as data. It’s telling you that something is not as you think it should be. This is where a reality check is useful. Firstly, how accurate is your picture of the situation? How would it look from the other person’s perspective? What assumptions are you making about people’s motives, based on their behaviour? It’s very easy to misinterpret people’s actions, attributing ill-intent where none was intended.
Secondly, what does your anger tell you about your expectations of the world? If you’ve worked yourself into a spitting rage because that stupid intern brought you a macchiato with semi-skimmed milk when you made it perfectly clear you wanted skimmed, then your anger may be telling you something about your stress level, your reaction to caffeine or perhaps your astonishing sense of entitlement. What are you making it mean when the world doesn’t give you exactly what you want?
Conversely, if you normally swallow your anger, a reality check might convince you, for example, that your anger over someone taking the credit for your work is perfectly reasonable and that this time, enough is enough.
4. Decide what you’re going to do
What if, instead of erupting, sulking, seething or pretending it’s not happening, you did something about it? Perhaps you could have a proper, grown-up conversation with the person you’re angry with. It takes courage, it may be awkward and uncomfortable but it is possible to be angry with dignity and in a respectful way. Something along the lines of “This happened, this is how I feel and what I’d like is..”, e.g. “I was expecting that report four days ago, I’m really frustrated that I’ve had to chase you twice. What I’d like is for us to agree a completion date and you stick to it”.
Of course this may not always be appropriate or possible, but work out what would be the most constructive course of action in the situation, even if it’s choosing to do nothing.
5. If necessary, let it go
If you choose to do nothing or there is nothing you can do, then let it go. “But, but, but”, you might say, “it’s still wrong, I’m still angry”. But if you’re not going to do anything about it, then the only person suffering if you carry this anger around is you. So make a conscious decision to let it go. Try not to keep going over it. Take it out on a punch bag. Write a really angry letter, then rip it to shreds or burn it (never, ever send it).
So there you go, four things to avoid and five things to try. Next time, just in time for Christmas, dealing with someone else’s anger at work.
If you’d like some support managing emotion in the workplace, I’d be happy to have a chat: firstname.lastname@example.org