As a kid, I got mixed messages about anger. My parents were frequently angry. When they were angry, they would hit me or one of my eight siblings. It’s understandable they were mightily frustrated. Anger and aggression were very closely linked for me.
I learned in church that anger was a sin. It wouldn’t have helped to point out to my parents my theological insights that their relationship with God was in jeopardy if they continued to show anger towards me for my frustrating behaviour.
I also learned at church that Jesus was angry when he chased the moneychangers out of the temple. (John 2: 13-16) This, I was told, was “righteous anger” and a virtue as displayed by Jesus himself. His anger made the moneychangers furious. But then their anger was bad because they were moneychangers and they should have been inside the temple saying their prayers rather than turning the temple into a marketplace.
So for me, as for many others like me, anger was confusing. As a child, anger was closely associated with aggression and hurt, which made me afraid. It was described as both a sin and a virtue. This needs unpacking.
So what of anger today in the workplace?
In a research paper called “A Message in the Madness: Functions of Workplace Anger in Organizational Life”* published in February 2020, the authors show how anger can make a positive difference in an organisation.
They acknowledge that anger can be an unpleasant, even distressing experience for all concerned:
- Those expressing anger
- Those on the receiving end
- Those witnessing the anger.
That’s why people often label anger as “the quintessential negative emotion”.
Actually, the authors of the paper say, there are many positive results that come from feeling and expressing anger in the workplace. The challenge for managers and colleagues alike is to know how to manage the anger so it can, in fact, be a positive force for change.
The experience that many people have of anger can differ. At one end of the spectrum there are individuals fighting injustice and reacting to situations that impede their work, and at the other end of the spectrum are those seeking revenge and retribution.
What makes life difficult is that a common response to any kind of anger is anger in return, which can then escalate and make situations worse. When these angry encounters spiral out of control the possibility of helpful conversations goes down the drain.
Sometimes when people are angry, they want to hurt the other person either psychologically, emotionally or even physically. We often label this aggression bullying. This kind of anger impedes workplace conversations and leads to dysfunctional behaviour in an organisation. People stay silent to avoid becoming the target of such bullying behaviour. This anger is destructive in a workplace and needs its own response.
The good news is that the researchers discovered that “while 90% of aggressive incidents start with anger, only 10% of anger experiences actually lead to aggression”. They say that
Most people who get mad at work are not bullies, psychopaths, or jerks. When someone expresses anger, more often than not, that person wants to convey a message of being negatively affected by an offender’s actions. Importantly, anger can serve a valuable function by alerting employees and managers to violations of ethical and organisational norms, including injustice and inappropriate behaviour at work. Clearly there are important messages sent and received when organisational members get mad.
As they say: Bad feelings often exist for good reasons
You can learn to manage your own and other people’s anger through the TUF programme, either online or in face-to-face workshops.
*Academy of Management Perspectives2020, Vol. 34, No. 1, 28-47.