Is all anger in the workplace bad?
Around 65% of office workers have experienced office rage, and 45% of staff regularly lose their tempers at work say statistics for National Anger Awareness Week which takes place 1-7 December. Of all the emotions, studies suggest that anger is the one that we most easily recognise through facial expression and body language and academics like Fox & Spector suggest that anger is associated with deviant or counterproductive behaviour at work.
It’s the ‘fight’ of the fight or flight response mechanism. But whereas emotions like fear come from an employee perceiving they have low control or certainty in their role, anger can come from high certainty and control. So, is all anger in the workplace bad?
Anger in perceived competence
An interesting aspect of the expression of anger at work is in its relation to competence. Anger is associated with assertiveness, and researchers like Tiedens found that it can be perceived by others as an indicator that the person exhibiting the anger is competent in their role.
This sounds counter-intuitive but it is a strategy that many leaders employ. Think of Barack Obama expressing his anger over the senseless shooting in a black church in South Carolina in 2015, or indeed countless other leaders who go on record with their anger to any number of issues.
The person exhibiting the anger emotion is showing the required human response that we look for when we make judgements as to whether they are performing adequately. By exhibiting anger they also demonstrate control over the situation and an element of distancing themselves from the outcome as they give the message: this is not what I planned or hoped and I am angry about this.
Anger in negotiations
A key activity within the workplace can be negotiations which can incite strong negative emotions like anger. The natural response for employees experiencing anger during negotiations may be to suppress it in an attempt to appear agreeable, and to encourage the outcome that they are negotiating for.
The conservation of resources theory put forward by Hobfoll and others suggests that this suppression can actually impair their negotiating performance. The self-regulation of the anger means they are not fully engaged in the process as their resources are being used elsewhere.
An article in the Journal of Business Psychology found that the negotiator becomes excessively focused upon checking themselves in terms of their verbal and non-verbal communication for fear of anger seeping into the discussions, and that it is loss of attitudinal focus rather than cognitive exhaustion that influences their performance negatively.
Anger for proactivity
There are said to be a number of effects of anger such as harmful or vengeful behaviour, discussing it with a colleague or friend, withdrawal from the situation or the most effective which is constructive problem resolution.
Research such as by Lebel suggests that anger can lead to pro-activity. The basis of this theory is that anger can be an energiser and motivator for change.
Like fear, anger is said to be a mobiliser of both psychological and physiological resources, and as such can galvanise employees to attempt to change the situation. The key to make this anger both positive and proactive is focus on benefiting co-workers or the organisation, thus away from the harmful and vengeful effects of anger and towards constructive problem resolution.
To say that all anger in the workplace is bad is to take a very narrow view. Whilst anger can be an extremely negative and destructive force in the workplace, it is also an authentic human response which is at times necessary for positive evaluations of performance.
Yet, when anger is not fully understood it can be damaging to employee’s performance. Helping employees to understand, manage and better focus their anger can have positive benefits within organisations.
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Paul Russell is co-founder and director of Luxury Academy London, www.luxuryacademy.co.uk, a multi-national private training company with offices in London, Delhi and Vishakhapatnam. Luxury Academy London specialise in leadership, communication and business etiquette training for...