10 Tips to Manage Workplace Anger

Leanne Walker – Angry Emoji – FREE, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=93804677

This blog is eight years old, and represents 345 posts. In addition to the 741 comments, people sometimes email me. Occasionally those letters detail workplace situations so horrendous it makes you wonder how the writers get up in the morning. Then there are the complimentary emails, making me feel as though weekends spent with my laptop aren’t a complete waste. Infrequently, I get angry emails. When you get an angry email, it makes you wonder. You can’t help think, wow, if we worked in the same office would the writer yell at me? You imagine staring at your screen when a co-worker bursts through the door shouting. You’ve done something really bad, you’ve hurt someone else, you’re thoughtless. You made bad choices.

Let’s face it, work is stressful, and now, 11 months into the pandemic, more stressful than ever. There are illness worries, staffing worries, financial worries, family worries, the too-much-screen-time-almost-no-human-time worries. And on, and on. If we could see into each other’s thought bubbles some days, we’d probably put our own heads down and weep. Thank heavens we can’t. But on the days when life really stinks, how do you keep the thought bubbles private, and that inner raging voice from becoming all too public? And if it does, what do you do next?

Anger at work might be more complicated than anger at home with family or friends. They love you unconditionally. Work is different. In museum offices creativity, efficiency, and collaboration take precedence, followed closely by respect, empathy, and good humor. Work–particularly museum work–has a reputation for being rational, decorous, and prudent. Museum offices are not places where tempers are lost easily. Or frequently.

When tempers are lost, we face a horrid mixture of guilt, humiliation, and residual rage. When we’re angry, we react physically not just mentally. Our temperature goes up, our heart rate increases, and our body sends blood rushing toward our muscles. In other words, we’re ready to fight except our brain is yelling, whoa, wait, YOU’RE AT WORK! If you identify as a woman, one of the physical manifestations of anger may be tears which further humiliates you. There you are furious AND CRYING in front of your staff. And if you’re a woman, and you’ve worked in the museum field or frankly anywhere longer than five minutes, you already know workplace anger, whether accompanied by tears or not, has gender implications. And because gender almost never stands alone, workplace anger is also intersectional.

If you haven’t read this article from Frontiers of Psychology (November 2020), it helps explain how gender and race influence our perceptions of workplace anger. Anger communicates dominance, and when you–because of your race and gender–aren’t perceived as dominant–anger can backfire big time. For example, the researchers point out that white men receive a status boost from anger that Latinx women do not. The latter are not considered aggressive and therefore getting angry is out of character. They suggest loosing your temper at work is damaging to women across races, but in different and complicated ways. The article posits we are all influenced by cultural stereotyping, and when those stereotypes are violated, over the long term, it’s the angry person who is punished.

So what should you do? You’re at work, something happened. Time is lost, a chance is lost, your team messed up, regardless, you’re in a rage.

  • Change spaces. Whether it’s the restroom, stepping out of doors, or going to get a cold drink, preferably non-caffeinated, change your environment. Breathe deeply. It sounds woohoo, but actual, intentional breathing tells your body to slow down.
  • Self-reflect. Is this a day where everything went wrong from the moment you got up? If yes, is it possible you are globally angry (and frustrated) as opposed to specifically angry?
  • When you’re ready, go over the narrative again. Think of yourself in the third person. What was your role? How could you have changed things? What would have made you less angry or frustrated?
  • Don’t react in the heat of the moment. Don’t send that email. Don’t barge back into the meeting. Wait before discussing what happened with your colleagues or staff. Instead, acknowledge what happened quickly. Let your direct reports know you’re sorry for the disruption, and you’ll get back to them in a day or so to talk about it. That acknowledges your anger without entangling you in explanations you may not fully understand. It also gives you time to think things over.
  • In the meantime, do something useful and completely separate from whatever prompted your anger.
  • Apologize. Sometimes leaders and colleagues think if they just don’t mention their angry outburst, people will forget. They don’t. It’s almost a universal truth that we remember bad events more clearly than good ones. So plan on apologizing, not just to say you’re sorry, but to offer some explanation for what happened–you’re suffering sleep deprivation, your parent is gravely ill, you’re preparing for a tricky meeting with the trustees–and that your goal is preventing it from happening again.
  • Be prepared to wait. Confirmation bias or the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories is something else to think about. Because confirmation bias affects us all, our colleagues are more likely to remember your single angry moment, then your many even-tempered ones.
  • Healing takes time. You may be over your anger–studies show that young men in particular shed anger faster–but your colleagues who faced the brunt of your outburst, may take some time to build trust again.
  • Be empathetic. If it’s a staff member or colleague who’s angry, treat them the way you want to be treated, and offer them some space to collect themselves and reflect.
  • Last, if you’re the recipient of someone else’s anger, know the difference between anger and bullying. Don’t let yourself be bullied.

We spend a lot of time at work, more than many other industrialized countries. Citizens of the European Union have the right to refuse to work more than 48 hours per week, while workers in Germany and Sweden work closer to 35 than the U.S.’s 46.8 per week. Regardless “workism,” particularly in the age of COVID when work is always with us, makes us stressed; being stressed makes us angry, and as we’ve seen, being angry leads to a boatload of problems. Take your self-care seriously. Eat healthfully. Try to get enough sleep. Take the vacation that’s due you, and model self-care for your colleagues and staff. When you feel like you’re going to snap, be honest. Say, “I’m about to implode. I’m going for a walk.”

Forget the stupid groundhog. Spring, vaccines, and immunity can’t be that far off. Breathe deeply.

Joan Baldwin



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