How to manage your anger at work


We’re all a little angrier these days. The persistent level of stress and anxiety you experience every day when you’re under pressure depletes your emotional resources, making you much more likely to get angry, even at minor provocations. While we are often told that anger is harmful, irrational and should be suppressed, there are ways to channel it productively. Research shows that getting angry can spark creativity, motivate you to stand up for yourself, and help you perform better in competitive conditions. The authors offer six strategies for using anger in more positive ways, including acknowledging that a violation has occurred, identifying the specific needs behind your emotion, and avoiding excessive venting.

After two years of navigating a global pandemic, tensions are high. During the research for our book big feelingswe heard from readers who told us they’d recently lost their cool due to all sorts of seemingly minor triggers: inconsistent Wi-Fi, an email from their boss who just sent “?” read, or a co-worker who pings them at 4:45 PM asking for a “quick favor.”

When faced with chronic stress or trauma, our brains “rewire the anger circuits,” explains neuroscientist R. Douglas Fields. In other words, the persistent level of stress and anxiety you experience every day when you’re under pressure depletes your emotional resources, making you much more likely to get angry, even at minor provocations.

Our emotional outbursts can be distressing, especially as we often receive messages that anger is harmful, irrational and should be suppressed. But anger isn’t necessarily bad (and suppressing it isn’t good for you or those around you). If you know how to channel it, it can even serve you. “Anger is the bodyguard of pain,” writes author David Kessler.

Take, for example, Brad Bird, director of Pixar, who purposely recruited frustrated animators to work on a new movie because he thought they would change things up for the better. The result? The Incrediblesa film that broke box office records.

If you want to channel your anger in a more positive way, here are six things you can do.

Acknowledge that a violation has occurred.

We often try to eradicate our feelings immediately to avoid getting upset. But if you’re hurt because of an unfair decision or if you feel unworthy of someone constantly shutting you out (or worse), you may feel unabashedly angry. Do not immediately take out your emotions on someone else, but acknowledge what you feel. In fact, research shows that, when warranted, anger is a much healthier response than fear because it evokes feelings of security and control that are less likely to lead to the adverse effects of stress, such as high blood pressure or high stress hormone secretion.

Even if the event that sparked your anger seems small on the surface, the sparks that cause us to explode internally are usually ignited. Perhaps the coworker we mentioned earlier who asked for a “quick favor” at the end of the day has a history of handing over their work to others or needlessly emailing outside office hours.

Avoid excessive ventilation.

Blowing off steam isn’t as productive as you might think, even if it’s long been presented as a cathartic activity. (Take, for example, the proliferation of “rage rooms,” where you can pay to smash TVs and plates with a baseball bat.) Research shows that this type of “destruction therapy” causes your anger to escalate, rather than diminish. Psychologist Brad J. Bushman studied people who used a punching bag to express their anger, and found that “doing nothing at all was more effective” at spreading anger.

Likewise, chronic venting, where you repeat the same problems without trying to understand or solve them, has been shown to make both you and the people listening to you feel worse. One of our readers, Paula, told us, “I finally had to put a limit to the amount of nonsense I talked to colleagues. I found myself feeling a lot better by using the time to focus on how I could learn or improve.”

Identify the specific needs behind your emotion.

Research shows that focusing your attention on the need behind what you’re feeling can help you gain a more objective, detached view of the situation — and better protect your emotional well-being.

A few questions that may help clarify the reason(s) why you are angry:

What caused my anger? What feelings lie beneath my anger? Maybe fear or powerlessness? What do I need now to be okay? What longer term outcome would make me feel better? What steps can I take to achieve that result? What do I risk for each of these steps and what do I gain?

For many people, the emotion behind anger is fear. You may be afraid of being powerless or that something you care about will be taken away or go wrong. Philosopher Martha Nussbaum even argues that the most common political emotion is fear, to which politicians pray to fuel anger and action.

If you can, talk about your emotions — without getting emotional.

We recommend that you give yourself time to calm down before taking any big steps. When we are upset, we are less able to think strategically. If your heart is beating faster or your fists are clenched, pause for a few minutes. Liz has learned to evaluate her anger on a scale of 1 (annoyed) to 10 (furious), and tries to wait until she calms down to a 3 or 4 before taking action.

If your anger was caused by someone else’s anger, you may want to share how their actions affected you. To prepare for that conversation, make it clear what your goal is, what you want to say, and when you’re going to say it. This simple formula can be helpful: “If you _____, I feel _______.”

While we were conducting a company workshop in early 2020, a woman asked what to do when her boss yelled at her. Another participant spoke. “I’m an executive assistant and my boss often yelled at me even when he wasn’t mad at me, but was mad about something else,” she told the group. “It would make me nervous, and then get frustrated that he was making me nervous. One day I finally said to him, ‘I know you’re upset right now, but if you yell at me, I can’t get to work. concentrate.’” Her boss apologized and realized he was accidentally hurting her execution, his outbursts became much less frequent.

If you can’t express your anger, then indirectly target your needs.

Sometimes you have to face the ugly truth that you’re angry about something you can’t change. In those cases, look for ways to remove yourself from the situation or, if you can’t walk away, to meet your needs indirectly (for example, by seeking support from friends or a therapist).

Rachel, one of our readers we spoke to last year as part of our research, felt powerless in the face of a difficult boss, but was unable to resign right away. “His unrealistic expectations and authoritarian leadership style left me in a constant cycle of stress and inadequacy,” they told us. Rachel started taking small steps to increase their confidence and feel more valued at work. First, they reduced how much they interacted with their boss. “I’ve also built a network of mentors and colleagues who knew me and valued me in a way my boss didn’t,” they said. “That helped prevent his feedback from sabotaging my self-esteem.”

Channel your anger energy strategically.

For a long time, Rutgers professor Dr. Brittney Cooper thought she needed to control her emotions in order to be respected — and to avoid being labeled an “angry black woman.” But that changed when one of her students said to her, “I like to listen to your lectures because your lectures” [are filled with…] the most eloquent fury.” The authenticity of Dr. Cooper’s emotion made her students pay attention. Now she sees anger as a superpower that can empower black women to fight injustice.

Research supports Cooper. When we take advantage of it, anger can boost our confidence and make us capable and strong. Researchers found that people who are angry also have a belief that they will prevail under all circumstances. During the training of the US Navy SEAL, new recruits learn that they can use the intense emotions and adrenaline that emanate from anger to energize them when faced with dangerous circumstances.

You can use the same strategy and use anger as a motivation to effectively advocate for yourself. Suppose you think you deserve a promotion, but are afraid to ask. Think to yourself: What would I do if I were the type of person to get mad about this? Or what would I advise a friend to do in this situation if I were angry on his behalf?

Most of us were raised to equate anger with out of control meltdowns. But this emotion is an important signal that something is wrong. And when used effectively, it can give us the strength we need to make things right.

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