A look at how anger is expressed by your boss and where to draw the line.
When you think about anger, you might immediately associate it with negativity. The word ‘anger’ conjures up images of intimidating faces, shouting and fear.
However, as counter-intuitive as it may seem, research has revealed that anger in the workplace can actually have some positive effects.
Where does anger come from?
Humans tend to experience more negative than positive emotions, according to research published in the Journal of Business and Psychology. In fact, at age three a child’s vocabulary has almost double the amount of words associated with negative feelings than positive ones. And as adults, we display a negativity bias, using negative information far more than positive information.
This negativity bias roots itself in basic expressions of emotions. Research has shown curbing your anger completely is difficult, as it’s a survival instinct. Swearing after getting hurt or when you’re upset is a natural response. It turns out being able to drop the f-bomb after stubbing your toe channels your energy into expressing your anger, rather than focusing solely on the pain you feel. This matches how anger manifests in the workplace.
Previously, HRM explored how people who have more negative moods in general can be an asset to the workplace. Research shows they tend to have improved memory function and judgmental accuracy, and are generally less gullible than their cheerier colleagues.
That article was focusing on negative moods in general, not how a specific mood filters down an organisational chart. It turns out, when it comes to anger from bosses, it can potentially increase worker productivity – but this is a two-sided coin.
Anger appears in the workplace for a variety of reasons and manifests in a variety of ways. According to the research, intense displays of anger from superiors can increase employees’ work effort. Apart from the obvious consequence of intimidating them into action (which isn’t the most effective way to motivate staff), it can also cause employees to reflect on their own behaviour.
The intensity of an angry outburst also has an effect on the employees’ response. To explain this, the research makes reference to the Dual Threshold Model of Anger. It says there are two threshold types – expression and impropriety. The former is crossed when a member of an organisation chooses to verbally express their anger at work in an appropriate manner, rather than silence it. The impropriety threshold is crossed when an employee “expresses anger in ways deemed inappropriate by organisational or social norms”.
Why is this important? Well, research published in the Psychological Bulletin proposes that when neither or both thresholds are crossed, negative responses are more likely. However, when only the ‘expression threshold’ is crossed positive responses, such as worker productivity, are more likely.
But building a successful business doesn’t just mean focusing on employee productivity. The research published in the Journal of Business and Psychology cautions leaders on using anger to trigger productivity, as this tactic is based on intimidation and “likely to be accompanied by deviant reactions” and worsen workplace relationships.
“It’s important to address it when your rage is not leading your mouth, because when you’re angry you’re irrational, as you’re fighting for defence.” – Karen Gately
So, while the research suggests that having an angry boss can increase employee productivity it also – to no one’s surprise – has the potential to raise an individual’s stress and anxiety levels. Contradictorily, these are known to impact negatively on productivity and create angry employees.
The anger is still there. So what now?
Rose Bryant-Smith, a director at consultancy group Worklogic, says that all anger at work needs to be expressed in a reasonable way, otherwise it risks being counted as workplace bullying.
“What’s reasonable will depend on the circumstances, but it always requires professional words and a measured volume,” she says. “Don’t yell, accuse or belittle. Don’t swear or be sarcastic. Stay focused on the issues, not the person.”
If anger is expressed in an unhealthy way, it is important bosses identify what made them angry, and apologise to those affected. The negative consequences of anger can only be avoided when people engage in what the researchers in the Journal of Business and Psychology describe as “cognitive processing” of the anger. In other words, in order to curb or work through anger, it is important to analyse the root cause.
Thankfully, unlike hate, the expression of anger is a behaviour that can be influenced and changed. One way to do this is by diffusing this behaivour, which can be done by pointing out to your boss that they seem upset by you, and asking what you can do differently to better outcomes.
For those in management positions, there are a few ways anger can be cognitively processed. Karen Gately, founder of consultancy group Corporate Dojo, says that in order to work through anger, the ‘circuit breaker’ must be found.
“This could be as simple as going for a walk around the block, or calling your partner to get some perspective on the situation,” she says.
“If you’re not ready to deal with the situation constructively, then wait to address it until you are. It’s important to address it when your rage is not leading your mouth, because when you’re angry you’re irrational, as you’re fighting for defence.”
The Harvard Business Review also has a guide on how to cognitively processes anger through a series of steps:
- Be honest with yourself. Consider whether this is a one-time blow up or recurring behaviour.
- Apologise. With sincerity, and as soon after the outburst as possible.
- Identify what caused you to blow up. This will reduce the chances of future outbursts, and allow you to understand and therefore control your emotions better.
- Change your behaviour. This one definitely sounds easier said than done, however will pay off in the long run if you are consistent.
Bryant-Smith also suggests there may be more at play than just anger when someone has an outburst in the workplace. “If you’ve reacted to a relatively small event in an extreme way, you may be experiencing burnout.
“Consider talking to your GP about a mental health plan. Plan some leave and engage in self-care activities like exercise and rest. Pretending that the anger doesn’t exist will exacerbate the problem, and may cause other health impacts.”
So when you are at risk of flying off the handle, consider whether anger is appropriate to express in this situation (it might be) and whether you are able to express it in a reasonable way.
“Will it be constructive to express your anger in this moment? If not, it’s better to express how you feel at a later time, that way you will feel you have made your point without damaging working relationships,” says Bryant-Smith.
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