December 3, 2007
Dealing with anger at work — yours and others'
The Associated Press
It could be a reaction to incompetence, unfairness, work overload. It could be from a thousand daily cuts that bleed your enthusiasm for your job. It could be one major incident --a layoff, a demotion or someone else's promotion.
So you blow your top at work.
Wrath is one of the original seven deadly sins -- but in today's workplace, displaying anger is just not acceptable.
Let's see how you can tame that tiger.
Our primordial roots
Being tagged as a screamer used to be a sign of macho, a signal that you were demanding better performance or telling management to shove it. Think of apes baring their teeth at the competition -- it's an age-old move to make others back down.
Sadly, it worked. Who wants to bring up a controversial work issue with a colleague who has a reputation for exploding?
That has radically changed. One of the key requirements for management candidates these days is an ability to stay calm and focused even in the most tumultuous circumstances. Anyone still yelling over daily work issues is considered a liability lawsuit waiting to happen.
"More and more companies are recognizing how an angry person negatively affects their workplace," said W. Barry Nixon, executive director of the National Institute for the Prevention of Workplace Violence.
Studies show that people get angry once or twice a week on average, with men getting more intensely angry and women staying angry longer, according to W. Doyle Gentry, author of "Anger Management for Dummies."
And contrary to stereotypes, younger workers display more anger than older ones, because people have better control over their emotions as they age, Gentry notes.
Anger also is linked to all sorts of health issues -- increased blood pressure, blood sugar and heart rates, to start -- no matter whether you are screaming at others or seething inside.
When to rein it in
If you don't know quite why you are angry, you cannot get rid of the anger. And if work is making you angry, the situation is going to get worse, not better, unless you take action. You need to unroot the sources of your anger, disable those triggers and then practice new patterns of behavior that do not include exploding at others.
"How we deal with anger is a learned behavior -- it is not innate. Sometimes we need to 'unlearn,' " Nixon said. "Anger-management courses are good from a prevention standpoint, but if an individual has challenges, they need one-on-one coaching."
You also need to beware of "righteous anger" -- you may be right on a certain topic, but the effects of your outburst will linger long after everyone has forgotten the issue itself.
When you're the target
Anger comes out in all different ways, including verbal abuse, bullying, sabotage and physical violence, all of which can affect your ability to do your job. Retaliation from you is only going to escalate the problem.
Your company has a legal obligation to prevent a hostile workplace, so if going to your supervisor about a colleague's anger doesn't solve anything, go to your human resources department. Unfortunately, that does not always work, either.
"In a company that listens to employees and takes their concerns seriously, HR is the place to go to," Nixon said. "But in companies where managers are yellers and HR is weak, they might even make you the problem."
Mad for a time
Sometimes anger is tied to a specific time -- Monday morning, Thursday afternoon, tax season, back-to-school season. This is your subconscious at work -- listen to it!
Monday morning anger: You find no pleasure at work. Time to look for another job, another company or even another industry. Note: This is anger, not ordinary Monday-morning moodiness.
Thursday afternoon anger: You dislike one major part of your job, which boils over at a certain time every week. Maybe there are ways this task can be done more efficiently, maybe it's an impossible task to begin with -- or maybe someone else could do it, possibly better than you.
Tax season, back-to-school time: You like your job but dislike its heavy-pressure moments. You cannot eliminate all of the last-minute stress, but more intensive preparations could make the time go smoother.
"Going postal" is now an indelible phrase in the U.S. lexicon, but it's an extreme situation that the vast majority of workers will never encounter. Still, even the idea that a co-worker could physically hurt you is enough to make anyone pause.
In 2006, 441 people were killed and 15,000 injured in physical attacks at work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nixon says about 25-30 percent of those were from co-worker violence (most others were from robberies).
A study by Hand-Gun Free America, an advocacy group, found that 92 percent of those who used a gun on others at work were male, most knew their victims and over half had just experienced a "negative change in employment" -- being laid off, fired or demoted.
Many attackers exhibited warning signs that were ignored by managers and colleagues, Nixon said.
His top warning signs include: People who make threats; who are constantly confrontational; who are fascinated by weapons and violence; who are in desperate financial or emotional circumstances; who have substance-abuse problems, deep depression or extreme obsessions.
"Dismissing anger is a major problem. People notice a change in behavior, but the light bulb doesn't go off and connect the dots," Nixon said.
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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