Workplace Anger Management 101

The difficulties Serena Williams had in her U.S. Open match a couple weekends ago hit home with me. I’ve never (yet) had a workplace meltdown like that, but have been called out by a man for having a bad temper. I once witnessed him yelling, swearing, and offering an obscene hand gesture to a driver as we crossed the street to a holiday party years ago, so being called out for a bad temper by him was funny.

Serena’s heated exchanges with the umpire, who she felt unfairly deducted points from her as a penalty, could point to sexism and differing levels of acceptance for male versus female anger, some say. Others, like tennis star Martina Navratilova, say what she got wrong was that a display of that kind of temper tantrum is wrong for any tennis player, whether male or female.

Based on my own experiences and observations, I lean toward those who feel there is still a double standard in our society for angry outbursts when they come from a man versus a woman. Similar to how a woman will be called bossy, while a man will be applauded for showing leadership, there is still a tendency to frame women’s anger in a more negative light.

But regardless of whether there is a double standard in how women’s and men’s emotions are interpreted in the workplace, anger in general is a huge problem in the professional world. It’s an issue that should be addressed in training programs such as manager training and leadership development seminars. When channeled properly, anger can be a powerful motivator to inspire greater productivity. When not properly channeled, it can result in not just openly hostile exchanges between co-workers, but passive aggressive actions.

For example, the editor/former boss with whom I have strained relationship lately has started misspelling my name. I’ve worked with him for eight years, so it’s odd that all of a sudden he has trouble remembering the spelling. I have responded by highlighting and putting in bold the part of my name he misspelled. He didn’t apologize, but the e-mail he sent in response had my name spelled correctly. Despite the correction he made, it’s a mistake I expect him to make again because I think either consciously, or subconsciously, it seems like his way of venting frustration. Similarly, a few years ago, after I detailed his poor performance as a manager in a review submitted to Human Resources, he came up with busy work tasks for me. It appeared to be his way of dinging me for speaking up.

Is it possible to teach a process for handling angry feelings with co-workers or employees so that it becomes automatic, rather than employees falling into whatever their knee-jerk reflex is in angry situations? And what should be taught to employees regarding humility and apologizing?

A huge difference I notice between some people versus others is the ability and ease with which some people can be humble, take responsibility, and apologize for a mistake, while others will do anything to avoid apologizing. I usually fall into the former category of having no difficulty admitting wrong and apologizing, though I’ve experienced times when I’m loathe to admit my mistake and apologize to a person I may be frustrated with. Should there be an agreement that in the workplace, among colleagues, acknowledging a mistake and taking the time to apologize is a good thing?

In corporations, to protect against liability, a culture in which mistakes are not easily acknowledged seems common. The public has been shown to reward companies that are open, admit wrongdoing, and apologize, but not every company has taken those lessons to heart. As a consequence, many corporations still have a culture in which the first thing to do when a mistake is made, whether toward customers or colleagues within the company, is to cover up and then move on without taking responsibility and expressing regret. How do you ensure the culture inside your company is open and apologetic when necessary, just as you would hope to be when at fault for how customers are treated?

Everyone, even the kindest of people, get angry, and in the workplace that can pose a problem—unless you’re the heir to a great fortune, you can’t just shout, stomp your feet, and storm out the door. You have to return the next morning and work with the same people you may hardly be able to stand to look at. Is there a way to train employees how to productively express anger or frustration and then move on without irreparably damaging workplace relationships?