How anger at work affects you and what to do about it

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Anger at work

Few things are as destructive in the workplace as anger.

And it’s quite stealthy.

I’m not talking about the kind of anger at work that wells up when you open the break room fridge and find your lunch MIA. This has never happened to me. I suspect it’s largely because my lunches contain mostly quinoa and avocado.

I’m not even talking about the yelling, slamming-fists-on-the-table kind of anger. I know realistically we’ve all worked with someone like that at some point. The person who name-calls and yells, is visibly infuriated, flies off the handle when they don’t get their way, and makes everyone uncomfortable.

Some people say you should just let this kind of anger out, that catharsis is healthy. I’m not so sure about that, domestic violence being what it is.

Silence is rarely golden

No, I’m talking about a more silent anger. One that hides behind smiles and professionalism, but drives many of your behaviors and decisions at work.

You may not even realize you’re angry. Maybe it really feels more like frustration. But if left unchecked, frustration can boil up and surprise you when you can least afford it.

Suddenly you’re saying and doing things that are out of character for you.

Then what?

  • Good relationships get pummelled because things were said that can’t be taken back.
  • Trust erodes when anger at work rears its head because we assume the worst about people and their intentions. People like our bosses.
  • Projects don’t get finished because no one can focus on their actual work and companies make less money.
  • Good people quit good jobs when they get angry at work because they feel powerless to make change.

The work game can set you up for anger

Work sometimes reminds me of the game called Keep Away (Piggy in the Middle, for my British friends). Did you play this game as a kid?

There’s one ball and three people. The object of this game is to toss the ball back-and-forth between two people and keep the third person, who finds himself in the middle, from getting the ball.

That’s pretty much the game.

Great laughter and sneering ensues while the third person flails around pathetically trying to catch the ball.

Maybe when you were a kid you were athletic, tall, aggressive, quick, crafty or Lebron James but in my storied past, this is how I looked when this sad game went down.

I remember being seriously ticked off playing this game.

Those two knuckleheads tossing the ball were blocking me from what I wanted, and it made me so angry.

But being a good Southern girl, I smiled and laughed it off while downing my sweet iced tea with lemon.

Anger is an obstacle

Anger usually presents itself when something or someone is standing in your way to a goal or a status you are trying to achieve.
  • You might be angry because you didn’t get the promotion you thought you deserved.
  • You may be angry because a coworker didn’t finish their part of the project and now the whole thing is in jeopardy.
  • You may be angry because you feel disrespected in spite of the value you bring to your team.
  • You may feel angry because you don’t have the resources to be successful.
  • You may be angry because you feel invisible, or you feel like you’re too visible and take the rap for everything bad that happens.
  • You may be angry because you can’t find peace to get your work done.
  • You might be angry because the changes never seem to stop and you just can’t get your legs under you.

No one may even have a clue you’re angry about these things. You’re good at hiding it because you don’t want to be yelling-and-slamming fists guy (or girl, girls can slam fists). That’s unprofessional.

How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the causes of it.

So if you’re all smiles and giggles, how does this anger show up?

  • Have  you ever dropped sarcastic remarks in response to someone’s input on something?
  • Have you ever removed yourself from others in an effort to “show them?”
  • Have you ever asked deliberate leading questions to get someone to admit something or to make them look bad?
  • Have you ever talked about someone behind their back?
  • Have you ever withheld information someone might need to do their job?

These kinds of behaviors are all passive aggressive.

Meaning, you’re angry, but you act like you aren’t and use unrelated actions to communicate it.

Like when your spouse slams the dishes around while cleaning the kitchen you were supposed to clean. There’s a message there, but she’s not being terribly clear about it. But she is being loud.

And like that game of Keep Away, staying angry and flailing around about what you’re not getting isn’t going to get you anywhere.

At some point, you have to take action or nothing will change. In fact, your anger could give way to things like anxiety and depression.

So what can you do?

Stop letting anger block you

Anger is an excellent indicator that something is wrong. It wraps itself around and protects things like fear, vulnerability and hurt.

Anger can give you useful data to find out what you really need to work on. Anger is a beetle (What!? More on that here.)

Understand what you’re angry about

Take an honest assessment about what is making you angry. Write down each thing that you get upset about.

A good way to know when something has made you angry is if you sit at your desk and ruminate about it constantly and can’t get your work done.

Write. It. Down.

Then, rate from 1-10, how angry that thing makes you:

  • 1=”not so much,”
  • 10=”off the freakin’ rails.”

Look for patterns in the things you rated as off the rails, or close to off the rails. What common elements do they share?

Use this data to find out what you’re wanting and not getting.

You can also review your list and see if you can identify any other possible scenarios that might explain the situation.

Your boss ignored your email?

  • Perhaps it’s in her spam folder.
  • Maybe her daughter had to go to the ER and she’s been a little busy with that this morning.
  • Maybe she drafted a response and got sidetracked and forgot to hit Send. That happens to me soooo much.
  • Maybe she actually doesn’t care about your email. The negative response is always a possibility but it doesn’t have to be the first thing you come up with.
  • Try to explore all the possibilities before you go all Walter White on her.

Be brave and communicate it directly

Now that you have some idea of what is making you angry, give some consideration as to how you might communicate it to others so you can speak honestly about your experience.

In a work environment, this can be tricky. Most organizations have mechanisms to deal with slamming-fist people, but many are not that skilled with the finer emotional events that drive everyday work.

You will have to be the one to take the initiative, and it will be good for you because initiative is the anti-passive-aggressive.

So who should you talk to? Your manager?

You have to gauge this one based on your relationship with your manager. Many managers want to know when their people are unhappy, but just as many don’t know quite what to do with it.

Give some thought as to how your anger might sound on their side of the table and see how you might frame it in a way that will help them help you.

One way to do this is to communicate your concerns using “I” statements.

Speak from your own experience, describing the emotions you feel and how it has affected your situation.

And, this is important: you do this without casting blame or trying to assess the other person’s motives.

For example, NOT this:

“I noticed my accomplishments were not mentioned in last month’s report to the CEO along with everyone else. How could you disrespect me like that? I worked so hard and sacrificed a lot of personal time to get it done. I can’t believe how little you care about me and my work.”

Dang! No…

Try this instead:

“I noticed my accomplishments were not mentioned in last month’s report to the CEO along with everyone else. Gotta be honest, that made me feel a bit angry because I worked extra hours and sacrificed personal time to meet the goals. My goals and my team’s goals are really important to me. Help me understand what you need from me. What could I be missing?”

In the last scenario, you speak to your anger, but not in a way that puts the other person on the defensive. Instead, it’s a call for more information to improve the process, and ultimately, it’s more collaborative.

“I” statements are a powerful way to communicate with anyone who may have a real stake in your life: coworkers, spouses, kids, friends, the geniuses at the Apple store.

If you can’t talk to your manager, is there someone else in your internal network who can hear your concerns? Maybe someone in a different department who has a voice in the organization?

Don’t be a jerk, let it go

Whether you address your anger with someone else or not, you are still faced with the prospect of letting your anger go.

Anger is exhausting and doesn’t really serve anyone, least of all you. You may not get your justice, and you may have to be okay with that.

Letting it go serves to start with a clean slate, for everyone. This is a great foundation to build trust and can actually strengthen your relationships.

There is great value in exploring and processing anger, but the road always leads to the same place: to move forward you have to release it.

This is the part you can control

Letting go of anger is a decision and a commitment. There’s no magic trick that will distract you from it or make it seem better than it is.

It is an act of humility that says the greater good is bigger than my feelings in this moment.

It’s easy to look for others to be the cause of why we’re struggling at work, but we forget that we hold so much power over our emotions.

Anger is tricky because it seems like it’s mostly caused by something or someone else.

But the decision on how to deal with anger is largely left up to us.

That’s not fair, but that seems to be the way that particular cookie fell off the sheet.

We can choose how to perceive others’ actions in our workday, and we can decide what role we might play in the solution.

Who knows how that might change the outcome?

What about you?

How have you experienced anger at work? What has helped you? Please share!


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