Keep Cool: Fighting Anger in the Workplace

February 1, 2011

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Everyone gets frustrated at work from time to time, but an angry outburst at a coworker or superior can be a career-killer. Here we look at ways to control your temper even under the most aggravating circumstances.

Even if you're working at your dream job, you're likely to have some bad days every now and then. But whether you are facing conflicts with your coworkers or feeling frustrated with management, it is important that you keep your cool in the workplace and avoid losing your temper even under serious strain. A rage-fueled outburst can have severe repercussions for your professional future and, moreover, it is unlikely to fix the problem that angered you in the first place.

"Mad that you were passed over for a big promotion again? Livid that the bootlickers always seem to get ahead in your organization? Perhaps it's time to consider whether the anger itself, however legitimate, is holding you back," Monster.com advises. "Evidence suggests many of us are walking around the office feeling resentful, though we may be unaware of the cumulative toll bitter actions take on our careers and coworkers."

Anger can come from a wide range of sources at work, and these factors are not necessarily controllable. According to WebMD, some of the most common reasons for employee anger are: encountering immoral behavior; being treated unjustly; others' incompetence; failures in communication; and exclusion from others.

Of course, these factors may not actually be objective problems, they only need to be perceived as slights in order to trigger someone's temper. That means that preventing or controlling workplace anger is as much about internal, psychological considerations as it is about external factors.

"We don't get angry at facts; we get angry at our interpretation of facts. This means, that we have a choice about how we respond to an event or person that triggers our anger," Marshall Goldsmith, author of What Got You Here Won't Get You There, writes at Harvard Business Review. "We're going to get angry — this is a perfectly natural emotion. The problem isn't our anger; it's our attempt to justify it rather than release it. Let's be clear: if you put energy into justifying your anger, you CAN'T release it."

The fact that anger most often originates from internal perceptions may actually be beneficial because it means that it can be dealt with on an individual mental level, even among those who have short tempers or are prone to public outbursts. Gretchen Rubin, a blogger and the author of The Happiness Project, recommends asking yourself the following questions when you feel your anger mounting at work:

  • Are you at fault? People often hate to be criticized, but it's important to recognize when the criticism is justified. If you're guilty of making a mistake, try to accept the critique as useful advice, even if you do so grudgingly.
  • Will this solve anything? Annoying events that recur again and again can be a powerful trigger for anger, but remember that snapping at people probably won't change their behavior in the long term. However, it will certainly hurt your chances for successful interactions in the future.
  • Are you improving the situation? An angry reaction rarely fixes the problem at hand. In fact, it can often aggravate the trouble. Your anger may set you back even further than the actual source of your irritation.
  • Should you be helping them? Sometimes people feel angry due to an inability to help someone they know they should be helping. The lack of control can create a sense of guilt that eventually leads to frustration. Look for alternative ways to try to assist someone instead of descending into rage.
  • Are you uncomfortable? Even something simple, such as an uncomfortable outfit, a headache, hunger or lack of sleep can make a person irritable and more likely to lash out than they normally would be. Notice when it is the discomfort that's making you feel angry, rather than the people around you.
  • Can you joke about this? If you could step out of your own shoes for a moment and look at the situation from a distance, would it seem silly or laughable? Look at the lighter side of your dilemma and remember that humor can be a powerful cure for your frustrations.

Learning to dispel your anger is a crucial part of being successful in the workplace and in your personal life, but there is a significant difference between letting go of your anger and stifling it.

"Stifling our feelings or our urges to act out in anger doesn't work. People can read us... sometimes better than we can ourselves," Goldsmith warns. "Stifling our feelings will work against us because when we deny or suppress anger, we end up projecting it. Either we turn it inward, which leads to depression or disease, or we turn it outward... ."

Finding an outlet for your anger can be surprisingly easy if you're determined not to let such negative feelings control your behavior. According to MSN Money, activities such as going for a walk, exercising, counting to 10, distracting yourself with music or taking a long weekend can provide effective relief for anger.

"Out-of-control anger is perhaps the most destructive emotion that people experience in the workplace," career development firm MindTools explains. "It's also the emotion that most of us don't handle very well. If you have trouble managing your temper at work, then learning to control it is one of the best things you can do if you want to keep your job."

Earlier

13 Types of Irritating Coworkers

Traits of a Bad Boss

Top 10 Workplace Stresses and Irritations

Resources

What's Eating You? Avoid Workplace Anger's Corrosive Effects by Cheri Swales Monster.com, 2010

Making Your Co-Workers Angry Could Haunt You by Jennifer Warner WebMD, Jan. 13, 2004

How to Keep Your Temper at Work (and Everywhere Else) by Marshall Goldsmith Harvard Business Review, Nov. 26, 2008

Six Questions to Help You Keep Your Cool — Instead of Losing Your Temper by Gretchen Rubin The Happiness Project, January 2011

Five Ways to Avoid Losing Your Temper at Work by Wendy Hoddinett MSN Money, Feb. 17, 2009

Managing Your Emotions at Work MindTools

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