Dealing with Anger at Work

Dealing with Anger at Work

‘Whatever is begun in anger, results in shame’. – Benjamin Franklin, American statesman.

All of us experience anger at some time or another. It’s a normal human response to threatening or upsetting situations we experience at home, in the community and at work. However, anger can be destructive if we fail to manage and control it.

Anger in the workplace can have a damaging effect on your personal health (causing stress) and your morale at work. Moreover, becoming angry at work can have a damaging effect on your personal reputation.

Anger between colleagues at work can also seriously impact organizational effectiveness, and lead to legal consequences for the individuals and the organization.

In this article, we’ll discuss what anger is, and what its consequences can be. We’ll also look at techniques we can use to control anger and aggression.

UNDERSTANDING ANGER

Anger is one our most powerful and vital emotions. It can be a necessary tool for survival of individuals and communities. However, anger can become problematic when it persists and begins to cause significant difficulties in our lives which includes our thinking, feeling, behaviour and relationships.

Anger has three components:

  1. Physical – physical reactions normally begin with a rush of adrenaline and responses can include an increased heart rate, blood pressure, and tightening of muscles. This is often known as the ‘flight or fight’ response.
  2. Cognitive – the cognitive experience of anger is how we perceive and think about what is angering us.
  3. Behavioural – this constitutes to any behaviour that signals anger, which may include raising one’s voice, slamming doors or storming away.

ANGER AND YOUR HEALTH

For psyhcologists, anger is seen as a supportive mechanism to show a person that something is wrong and requires changing. Anger can mobilize psychological resources for corrective action.

Uncontrolled anger can, however, negatively affect personal or social well-being and impact negatively on those around you. It is equally challenging to be around an angry person and the impact can also cause psychological and physical trauma if not dealt with.

When we are angry, our bodies release the hormones adrenaline and cortisol, the same hormones released when we encounter stress.

As a result of these releases in hormones our blood pressure, pulse, body temperature and breathing rate may increase, sometimes to potentially dangerous levels. This natural chemical reaction is designed to give us an instant boost of energy and power and is often referred to as the ‘fight or flight’ reaction. This means that the body and mind prepare for a fight or for running away from danger.

However, people who get angry often cannot manage their anger effectively and can become ill, just as stress that is left unresolved may make you ill. Our bodies are not designed to withstand high levels of adrenaline and cortisol over long periods or on a very regular basis.

Some of the health problems that may occur as a result of being angry regularly or for long periods of time can include:

  • Aches and pains, usually in the back and head.
  • High blood pressure, which can, in severe cases, lead to serious complaints such as stroke or cardiac arrest.
  • Sleep problems,
  • Problems with digestion.
  • Skin disorders.
  • Reduced threshold for pain.
  • Impaired immune system.

Anger can also lead to psychological problems such as:

  • Reduced self-confidence.
  • Eating disorders.
  • Substance abuse.
  • Self-injury.

Experiencing strong anger regularly or for prolonged periods can also affect your physical health, contributing to illnesses such as:

  • colds and flu
  • gastro-intestinal (digestive) problems
  • high blood pressure

It should be clear, therefore, that, anger can be detrimental to health.

The first step in managing anger is to understand the cycle of anger.

THE CYCLE OF ANGER

Anger is a natural emotion that usually stems from perceived threat or loss. It’s a pervasive emotion; it affects our body, thoughts, feelings and behavior. Anger is often described in terms of its intensity, frequency, duration, threshold and expression.

Anger typically follows a predictable pattern: a cycle.  Understanding the cycle of anger can help us understand our own anger reactions, and those of others. It can also help us in considering the most appropriate response.

Illustrated here are the five phases of the anger cycle:

  1. trigger,
  2. escalation,
  3. crisis,
  4. recovery and
  5. depression.

THE PHASES OF ANGER

THE TRIGGER PHASE

The trigger phase happens when we perceive a threat or loss, and our body prepares to respond. In this phase, there is a subtle change from an individual’s normal/ adaptive state into his stressed state. Anger triggers differ from person to person, and can come from both the environment or from our thought processes.

THE ESCALATION PHASE

In the escalation phase, there is the progressive appearance of the anger response. In this phase, our body prepares for a crisis after perceiving the trigger. This preparation is mostly physical, and is manifested through symptoms like rapid breathing, increased heart rate and raised blood pressure. Once the escalation phase is reached there is less chance of calming down, as this is the phase where the body prepares for fight or flight (to be discussed later).

THE CRISIS PHASE

As previously mentioned, the escalation phase is progressive, and it is in the crisis phase that the anger reaction reaches its peak. In the crisis phase our body is on full alert, prepared to take action in response to the trigger. During this phase, logic and rationality may be limited, if not impaired because the anger instinct takes over. In extreme cases, the crisis phase means that a person may be a serious danger to himself or to other people.

THE RECOVERY PHASE

The recovery phase happens when the anger has been spent, or at least controlled, and there is now a steady return to a person’s normal/ adaptive state.  In this stage, reasoning and awareness of one’s self returns. If the right intervention is applied, the return to normalcy progresses smoothly. However, an inappropriate intervention can re-ignite the anger and serve as a new trigger.

THE DEPRESSION PHASE

The depression phase marks a return to a person’s normal/ adaptive ways. Physically, this stage marks below normal vital signs, such as heart rate, so that the body can recover equilibrium. A person’s full use of his faculties return at this point, and the new awareness helps a person assess what just occurred. Consequently, this stage may be marked by embarrassment, guilt, regret and/ or depression.

After the depression phase is a return to a normal or adaptive phase. A new trigger, however, can start the entire cycle all over again.

Below is an example of a person going through the five stages of the anger cycle:

Eleanor came home from work to see dirty plates left in the sink (trigger phase). She started to wash them, but as she was doing so she kept thinking about how inconsiderate her children are for not cleaning after themselves.

She was already tired from work and does not need the extra chore. She felt the heat in her neck and the tremble in her hands as she’s washing the dishes (escalation phase).

Feeling like she can’t keep it to herself any longer, she stormed up the room to confront her kids. In a raised voice, she asked them how difficult could it be to wash the dishes. She told them that they are getting punished for their lack of responsibility (crisis phase).

Having gotten the words out, she felt calmer, and her heartbeat slowly returned to normal. She saw that her kids are busy with homework when she had interrupted them. She was also better able to hear their reasoning, as they apologized (recovery phase).

Eleanor regretted yelling at her children and told them that she’s simply tired and it’s not their fault (depression phase)

NOTE: How long each phase lasts differ from person to person. Some people also skip certain phases, or else they go through them privately and/ or unconsciously.

DEALING WITH YOUR OWN ANGER

Unhelpful Ways of Dealing with Anger

Here are some unhelpful ways of dealing with your own anger.

  • DON’T ignore the anger: Some people respond to anger by not admitting, even to themselves, that they are angry. Defense mechanisms often used to ignore anger include laughing an issue off, distracting one’s self from the problem, and trivializing the trigger’s impact.
  • DON’T keep the anger inside: There are people who do recognize that they’re angry. However, they choose to obsess about their anger in silence rather than express it. They can bear grudges for a long time. People like this, also called ‘stuffers’, are more likely to develop hypertension compared to others. They are also likely to just ‘explode’ one day, once the anger has built to the point that they can’t keep it inside anymore.
  • DON’T get aggressive: The right to vent your anger doesn’t extend to doing it in ways that can hurt others, hurt yourself and damage property. Aggression can be verbal or physical.
  • DON’T get passive-aggressive: Passive-aggressiveness refers to indirect and underhanded means to get back at the person who made you angry. Examples of passive-aggressive behaviors are gossiping, tardiness and backbiting.
  • DON’T use non-constructive communication styles: Avoid the use of indirect attacks and unproductive statements. These include blaming, labeling, preaching, moralizing, ordering, warning, interrogating, ridiculing and lecturing.

Helpful Ways of Dealing with Anger

Here are some helpful ways of dealing with anger:

  • DO acknowledge that you are angry: It is important that you know how to recognize that you are angry, and give yourself permission to feel it. This can be as simple as saying to yourself “I am angry.” Remember, you can’t control something you don’t admit exists!
  • DO calm yourself before you say anything: There is a biological reason why anger can feel overwhelming — our body is engaged in a fight or flight response. It helps then to defer any reactions until you have reached the return to normal/ adaptive phase of the anger cycle. Otherwise, you might end up saying or doing something that you’d later regret. Count 1 to 10!
  • DO speak up, when something is important to you: This is the opposite to ‘keeping it all in.’ If a matter is important to you, so much so that keeping silent would just result in physical and mental symptoms, then let it out. If it’s not possible to speak to the person concerned, at least look for a trusted friend or a mental health professional.
  • DO explain how you’re feeling in a manner that shows ownership and responsibility for your anger: Take ownership and responsibility for your feelings. This makes the anger within your control (you can’t control other people).

DEALING WITH ANOTHER PERSON’S ANGER

De-escalation techniques are skilled interventions designed to facilitate a person’s cooling down process, reduce the possibility of getting verbally or physically hurt, and gain control of the situation.

The following are examples of de-escalation techniques:

ACTIVE LISTENING

The following are some helpful components of active listening

  1. Show non-verbally that you are listening: Make sure that your posture shows openness. Establish eye contact. Speak in a soft, well-modulated, non-threatening tone of voice.
  2. Reflect: Re-state what you hear from the person. Example: “This is what I heard from you: You are mad because the package did not arrive on time.”
  3. Clarify: Help the person make sense of their garbled, confusing and/ or illogical statements. “Could you help me explain to me a bit more about what happened in the cafeteria? What do you mean by ‘he bullied you’?

HELP THE PERSON REGAIN CONTROL

Angry people may feel victimized by a situation, and may need to recover even a small sense of control. You can help do this by:

  1. Giving them choices: Example: “Would you like to move to a different area and talk?”
  2. Seeking their permission to speak: Example: “May I tell what I think about what just happened?”
  3. Focusing on immediate solutions: Example: “What do you think we can do today to help solve this issue?”

INVITE CRITICISM

Ask the angry person to voice his or her criticism of yourself or the situation more fully.

You might say something like:

“Go ahead. Tell me everything that has you upset. Don’t hold anything back. I want to hear all you have to say.”

AGREE IF POSSIBLE – AGREE TO DISAGREE IF NOT

There are cases when anger is triggered by a legitimate grievance. In these cases, it can help a person lose steam by hearing someone validate the presence of injustice. At the very least, agreeing that a person has a right to the opinion they have can help de-escalate anger.

SET LIMITS

Tell the person that you are willing to listen, but you’d appreciate that the tones down the expression of his anger.

Example is: “I’m listening right now. I’d like to talk, but without the shouting. When you shout it is distracting, and if this issue is important to you, then I want to be able to concentrate without hearing you raise your voice. Can we start again? How did I upset you?”

WHEN TO BACK AWAY AND WHAT TO DO NEXT

When you are too affected by an issue to view it objectively. De-escalating anger requires that you can take yourself out of an issue, even temporarily, and look at it objectively. However, if the issue has personal meaning for us, or we are too tired to properly intervene, then we don’t have the resources to de-escalate the anger.

WHAT TO DO:  Withdraw from the situation and talk to someone you trust about your own feelings.

When there are warning signs for verbal and / or physical violence

Your priority is always your well-being and safety. Warning signs for violence include a history of violent behavior, severe rage for seemingly minor reasons, possession of weapons and threats of violence.

WHAT TO DO: Get as far away from the person as you can! Go to a public place.

When no amount of rational intervention seems to work.

There are moments when a person is hell-bent on raging, and the anger will escalate regardless of what intervention you use. It is possible that the strength of the anger is significantly more than the person’s resources to cope. This is signaled by a tendency for the anger to still take off even after slowing down and cooling down, despite the absence of provocation.

WHAT TO DO: Disengage from the conversation and re-schedule the talk for another time.

When there are signs of serious mental health conditions.

Some serious mental health conditions are related to anger. In these cases, intensive therapy and/or psychiatric medications may be most appropriate. As a rule, people who suffer impairment of reality testing cannot be expected to be rational or reasonable. Signs to watch out for: persecutory or paranoid delusions, hallucinations, past history of violence based on delusions.

Chronic and rigid patterns of the use of anger as coping mechanism may point to a personality disorder.

WHAT TO DO: Compassionate understanding is key! However, disengage yourself immediately as some psychotic symptoms are correlated with a tendency towards violence. Refer to the appropriate mental health professional.

Summary

Anger is commonplace in conflicts in the workplace. If not controlled, it can be very destructive and potentially dangerous. Learning about the stages in the anger cycle will help you recognize where you and the players in the conflict are going to, and knowing how to react at each stage will help you to control, conflict situations.

You also need to know when to walk away, or back from angry people, and how to use control techniques to diffuse the situation. Finally, consider forgiveness as a technique in conflict resolution which always has a roll to play.

See the Global online course on Conflict Management.

Author: Fionn Reagan

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