How to Get Angry at Work

Our first guest post! The publishing arm of the American Management Association recently asked if we’d consider featuring their book Conflict 101, we said yes, and thus received a free copy of the management guide. It’s an emotionally-grounded look at how to fight fairly from 9 to 5, including how to reveal your anger productively. We asked if author Susan Shearouse would be up for writing an article for WN. We’re so pleased; here it is. -HC

When you get down to it, there are LOTS of ways to get angry at work:

  • The guy in the next cubicle keeps asking you the same questions over and over again.  When are you supposed to get your own work done?
  • Your boss comes in half an hour before quitting time with another assignment, plops it on your desk and walks away.  Seems like he pulls this every week.
  • The co-worker claims credit for the report when she turned it in.  Say WHAT???  There would be no report if you hadn’t spent hours feeding the information to her, then editing her work so that it made any sense at all.

We can work up a good mad-on just thinking about these things.  But then we hit the bigger problem: What to do with our anger once it has gotten to a rolling boil?

Blowing up can feel so satisfying in the moment.  Just telling them what you think will surely clear the air and then you can get back to work.  But it usually creates a bigger mess that is difficult to clean up. People’s feelings get bruised and a wall of distrust starts to go up.

Stuffing it doesn’t often work any better.  The problem isn’t resolved, sometimes it just gets bigger. Even though you try to forget about it, the resentment lingers, lying in wait for the next offense.

There must be another way…

Here are some things you can do the next time you feel yourself beginning to simmer with anger:

  • Breathe!  A few deep slow breaths can bring you back to a calmer place, where you can decide how you want to proceed.  Oxygen to the brain helps restore the balance between the rational thinking frontal lobes and the adrenaline pumping amygdala, buried deeper in our “lizard brains.”
  • Take a break.  Back up and give yourself some time to cool off and to think.
    • What am I upset about?
    • What outcome do I want?
    • When and where is the best place for me to deal with this?
    • Who needs to be included?
  • Understand what it is about.  Anger is a secondary emotion.  What is behind the anger you feel? Are you feeling powerless, or disrespected, or devalued?  No one can make you angry.  You have a choice about how to respond, and the more you understand about your own reactions, the more you are able to make an informed choice.
  • Create a safe place for a difficult discussion.  When you decide this is a situation you need to address, you’ll get a better result when you have the time to talk it through, and when you are in a neutral and private space.
  • Find physical outlets.  If it’s really eating you, get physically engaged in an activity that can turn off the ruminating. Write in a journal.  Go for a walk, play a game, get together with friends, lose yourself in a hobby.   The old advice was to picture your nemesis on a punching bag, and wail away.  What people do with that is just to practice being angry.
  • Avoid personal attacks.  Focus on the problem, not the personalities.  That old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me” is not true.  Words can continue to burn long after physical wounds have healed.
  • Deal with the current issue.  Keep the conversation focused on the present, not on the list of things over the past that have bothered you.
  • Keep talking.  If you take a break, come back and talk through the issue.  And push yourself to continue civil greetings and conversation moving forward.

By Susan Shearouse

SUSAN H. SHEAROUSE is the author of Conflict 101: A Manager’s Guide to Resolving Problems So Everyone Can Get Back to Work (AMACOM 2011). She has served as Executive Director of the National Conference on Peacemaking and Conflict Resolution and on the Advisory Board of the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University. Her clients have included Lockheed Martin, Philip Morris, the IRS, the US Environmental Protection Agency, the US Army Corps of Engineers, and many others. Find out more about Susan Shearouse and Conflict 101.

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