I recently read a terrific article on anger in the workplace: Deanna Geddes and Lisa T. Stickney, “The trouble with sanctions: Organizational responses to deviant anger displays at work,” published earlier this year in Human Relations (vol. 64 no. 2). The authors surveyed employees in the U.S. about expressions of “deviant” anger they had witnessed in the workplace, the responses by management and co-workers, and about overall outcomes. Their results may surprise you.
I often work with people who have been on the receiving end of or witnessed an angry outburst. Someone (an employee, co-worker, neighbour, or partner) simply “lost it.” The specifics may include yelling, screamed obscenities, slamming doors, threats of violence, hurtful email messages WRITTEN IN ALL CAPS, and the uncomfortable silence that follows, lasting from a few hours to several days, when no one is sure what to say or how to respond, and everyone fears what might happen next.
While it is uncomfortable to be on the receiving end of an angry outburst, being the one who “loses it” in front of others is hardly much better. Although there are those who become angry at everything (or at nothing), expressions of anger sometimes have a legitimate cause. Feelings of anger or indignation are often tied to our sense of justice and injustice. When we believe ourselves or others to be the victim of an injustice this can make us angry. Anger in the workplace can signal systematic and significant problems.
Geddes and Stickney found three different kinds of responses to anger in the workplace:
Sanctions: These may be formal (warnings, suspensions, dismissal) or informal (coworkers distance themselves from the angry person or respond with anger in kind).
Support: Management and/or co-workers try to understand what caused the outburst. They may speak with the offender about his or her behaviour in a supportive manner.
Avoidance: Everyone pretends that the outburst never happened.
The authors found that when management and co-workers responded to anger in a supportive, problem-solving manner, the results could be positive. As the authors write, “even intense emotional outbursts can provide information, and if responded to more compassionately, can lead to favorable change.” They found that even a single supportive act by a manager or co-worker could significantly improve a problematic situation.
Surprisingly, acts of deviant anger, even physical acts of anger, were found sometimes to have significantly positive effects in the workplace, even though they were often met with formal sanctions. Physical anger displays and employee dismissal were highly correlated, but there was no association between dismissals and positive change in the workplace. So whatever made the situation better, it was not simply because one angry person (a “bad apple”) was removed. The authors think it more likely that a physical act of anger, because it is so highly visible and difficult to ignore, prompts an immediate response by management, including attempts to address the cause of the emotional outburst.
The least effective response to anger? Pretending that it didn’t happen. The evidence in this study indicates that ignoring emotional episodes is not good practice. Not only is the opportunity for positive change lost, but the lack of any response is frequently troubling to other employees.
The lesson for managers: When employees “lose it” on the job, there must be a response. Emotional displays that reflect an aggressive or harmful intent must be sanctioned, and hostile or violent employees must be removed. Less intense and troubling outbursts can lead to positive change if they are used to identify those workplace conditions that require attention. Responding to anger and other emotional outbursts can be difficult, but the viability of your business may depend on it.