By Patricia Bouweraerts
A spring survey of 2,000 working adults in Great Britain by OnePoll for Glassdoor Inc. found the concern employees voice most often about their managers was disrespectfulness — and this happens to coincide with what psychologists have already said causes anger — when people don’t receive the respect they’re looking for and seek to defend their worth.
“Anger is triggered by the presumed need for self-preservation,” said Les Carter, Ph.D., author, psychotherapist and speaker. “When a worker feels the employer has crossed a line into intrusiveness, it can create a visceral reaction that might be summarized by thoughts like: ‘Am I just a cog?’ or ‘Do you people not understand I have personal needs?’ This would be an example of reasonable anger.”
Carter said that what is more important is the choice you make about how you express the anger.
“The challenge for any person experiencing this emotion is in managing it properly,” he adds. “Suppressing it only increases the risk for all sorts of ‘see me later’ responses (explosions, bitterness, depression, anxiety). Aggressiveness creates a potential for dismissal, as does passive-aggressiveness. So that leads the person to find a balance between assertion and the release (letting go) of the anger.”
A few current trends in today’s workplace can be frustrating — including that employees may need to handle an expectation to answer emails in the evening hours, provide proof of their effectiveness with hard data, and adjust to being monitored with electronic programs that track their time and projects.
“When individuals in the scenario you presented can establish proper boundaries, preserving personal needs cleanly, that is when the anger will be an impetus for good, not destruction,” Carter said.
Three intriguing works by therapists, stress experts, teachers and authors on the topic of anger are explored below — examined for how certain themes emerge concerning anger’s causes while on the job, possible strategies to handle and express anger productively, putting forward an accepting attitude when necessary, and scientific proof that change is indeed possible.
Anger is normal and reasonable
Carter has also written a book, “The Anger Trap,” in which he describes anger as usually having a legitimate cause. It shows that you believe in yourself and want to be taken seriously — a person wants to be respected, reaffirmed and held in high regard by others.
“No one is so emotionally detached from others that he or she can remain completely void of emotional reactions to the outer world,” Carter wrote. “Humans simply are not wired to be robotic as they respond to the environment’s many stimulations. … Additionally, we take cues from the people we encounter each day, as we react to their level of encouragement, interest, or approval. If others are rude, insensitive or invalidating, certainly our emotions are affected. If we sense that others are defensive, bossy, incompetent, lying, or sneaky, we cannot help but have an emotional response.”
Doc Childre, founder of HeartMath, Inc. and Deborah Rozman, Ph.D., psychologist and president of HeartMath, Inc. wrote in their book “Transforming Anger,” that anger is a natural human emotion, can be useful for emotional growth, and can prompt people to act.
“Remember that none of you emotional ‘stuff’ that comes up is bad,” they wrote. “It has to come up to be transformed.”
Anger can be appropriate and if handled well, lead to clean communications that help further relationships, Carter wrote.
Jeffrey Pfeffer, professor of organizational behavior at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University, wrote an April 2016 article posted on Fortune.com entitled, “Why ‘Modern’ Work Culture Makes People So Miserable.”
He wrote that one reason people are increasingly angry is that U.S. companies’ previously widespread practice of giving employees support and repaying loyalty has been eroding for decades.
“Companies started to cut employees loose quite a while ago,” Pfeffer wrote. “What we see today is just a continuation of a trend to treat people as human resources, as assets to be acquired and discarded according to the return for doing so.”
What are the common causes of anger on the job?
“Most workplace anger results from unresolved communication issues,” Childre and Rozman wrote.
Carter agrees that communication problems are a trouble spot. Anger can arise when there is an expressed inequality — when one person assumes a superior position over another.
“Whenever you feel that another person thinks of you in a lowly manner, you are highly likely to be tempted to reverse the situation by somehow putting yourself above your antagonist,” Carter wrote. “It is this dynamic that commonly keeps individuals stuck in non-productive forms of anger. Rather than speaking respectfully about needs and convictions, they turn their communications into a battle for superiority.”
Frustration can also be caused by perceived unfairness.
“Anger at work generally comes from feeling that you or others are being treated unfairly and from a sense that you’re helpless to do anything about it,” Childre and Rozman wrote.
They added that frequently anger happens when a person perceives that patterns are reoccurring.
“A lot of people project their worries into the future and then get angry at what they expect will happen,” they wrote.
The amygdala, an almond-sized structure in the brain keeps an emotional history. It often tries to find patterns between what is currently happening and what a person has experienced in the past.
“To stop the anger cascade, you need to pay attention to the feeling or memory that triggers judgmental or angry thoughts,” they wrote.
Sometimes anger is about taking things too personally.
“Over-personalizing is judging yourself as good or bad depending on how you reacted to a situation or how someone reacted to you,” Childre and Rozman wrote. “It’s human to over-personalize, but it’s one of the biggest energy drains of all. …It is easy to over-personalize, because it’s human nature. Almost everybody does it.”
The world, and the workplace is more hurried
Childre and Rozman say that part of the reason for more office rage is that there is an ever quickening work pace.
“As life speeds up, so do your emotional reactions,” they wrote.
These reactions can snowball through what they call a kind of emotional telepathy.
“Negative environments act like electromagnetic fields,” they wrote. “They exact a pull on whomever enters them.”
Pfeffer wrote that perhaps companies are paying attention to data when a human-centered approach would be more proactive. One of the reasons that humans work at companies is that we are social creatures and want to be part of groups or communities.
“What’s missing from the current labor market is a sense of humanity — as contrasted with lots of emphasis on efficiency, costs, and productivity,” he wrote.
Calming down in an innovative way
It’s challenging to slow down and calm down when anger arises, and a common technique is to take a few deep breaths.
“Remember that feelings are quicker than thoughts and take control without you knowing it,” Childre and Rozman wrote. “Your mind has to slow down in order for you to intuitively sense what your emotions are doing.”
When a person slows down, the heart and brain can act with a kind of synergy.
“You are always emotionally evaluating information,” they wrote. “If you’re out of sync with your heart, your brain can interpret the information as stressful and react with frustration or disappointment before you have a chance to consider the situation intelligently.”
When frustrated co-workers slow down or step back, more options may become obvious.
Finding insight in a unique way
“The heart is so powerful — generating sixty times the electrical amplitude of the brain — that it can draw your brain, nervous system, and emotions into its coherent rhythms and unlock more of your own innate intelligence,” Childre and Rozman wrote.
They advise pairing an attitude of kindness to yourself and others with your breathing.
“As you breathe, genuinely hold a positive attitude like care or appreciation, and breathe that attitude through your heart,” Childre and Rozman wrote. “It can take a little practice to do this.”
Care and appreciation can help a person’s heart to beat in an even, coherent rhythm, and this rhythm then can calm nerves and create a feeling of balance.
“It also changes the electromagnetic field that radiates from your heart to your entire body, to other people, and to the world around you,” they wrote. “Coherence also helps you protect yourself from other people’s negativity by offsetting the pull of the electromagnetic field around you.”
Childre and Rozman added that when a person can bring their heart back to a coherent and even rhythm, more intuitive insights will emerge that help to better solve the problem at hand.
Carter wrote that when expressing anger, it is wise to think about the dignity of others involved — that is true assertiveness. A way to think about it is to aim for an attitude of mutual respect. Approaching the issue honestly is “assertive anger.” If one believes in their own worth being separate from what others think, it facilitates beginning to also see the worth of others and empathizing with what they may have experienced.
“As you speak words of assertion, be open to separate or opposing feelings or viewpoints,” he added. “Be willing to listen even as you maintain firmness regarding you own beliefs.”
In expressing anger, the goal is not to win or to convince the other person to your way of thinking — it’s more about describing your feelings and perceptions without judgment or putting down anyone’s character.
Carter advises to maintain dignity and composure, stick to the point without long drawn-out explanations, and to be careful not to exaggerate. Then, once the point has been expressed, not to repeat it, but let the other person have time to absorb the information and respond.
How to handle anger with a neutral attitude, or humble approach
“Practice being neutral about your disturbed feelings,” Childre and Rozman wrote. “Neutral will give you a window to more objectivity. Then your heart can come in with intuitive insight. …Remember, neutral isn’t agreeing with what happened, it’s making peace with the fact that it did happen so the past will release its hold on you. That’s what will draw to you the wisdom or understanding that you weren’t able to find before.”
A humble approach can also be a strategy to explore.
When you feel annoyed or frustrated, a problem that can come up is self-preoccupation, and a way out of this is to actively commit to the trait of humility, considering the perspectives of others even if you feel they’re in error, Carter wrote. Humility can be defined as lack of self-preoccupation.
“Calm firmness is a better alternative to defensive anger when you’re in conflict with others,” Carter said in his book. “To succeed in maintaining such a trait, you would need to incorporate two key ingredients into your style of managing an offensive exchange; objectivity and listening.”
Objectivity is the ability to analyze the facts with logic, resulting in a more careful response to the confrontation. Pause to think about what is behind your anger and then decide clearly about what you’ll do next, Carter wrote. He added that one can also trust in the way he or she makes decisions.
When openly listening, sometimes one can learn something new about the other person — a new insight — and that they might be projecting anxiety onto you. That makes it easier not to have to address criticism.
“As listening produces increased insight and understanding, anger is often seen as an unnecessary response,” he said.
The tone of voice is important when expressing one’s case.
“A stubborn, pleading or brazen pitch only cues others to receive you poorly because it indicates insecurity and insensitivity on your part,” Carter wrote. “A calm, yet firm pitch, however, indicates you are comfortable with your message and it opens a greater possibility of the message being received.”
Using an even, calm, firm and respectful tone helps you stay on track, Carter wrote. It also helps to think about positive outcomes for all involved by the expression of the points to be made.
The expression of anger can be respectful, just like the respect one is looking for from his or her co-worker.
“In its healthiest forms, anger is an emotion that ideally promotes healing and correction,” Carter wrote. “To communicate anger disrespectfully is to contradict the message of healing. By communicating anger respectfully, angry people stand up for what is right and good, and they provide an experiential model for the way they would like to be treated. Respectfulness allows delivery of the message to be consistent with the message itself.”
After making the point
Release, or let go, of negative feelings once assertive words have been expressed, Carter wrote. Then think of other priorities and move on.
“Some people are difficult and invalidating no matter how appropriate you act,” he added. “At that point, if your belief of your own worth is intact, you can choose to let go of your anger and move on with your day.”
To some, it’s a mindset of redirecting, to think about the other “big fish to fry” in other areas of work or personal life.
Sometimes, even if one handles conflicts in the best way, the other person will still act in an uncooperative or combative way. In these times, a person can accept or forgive.
“When we each survey our common, everyday experience, we are forced to admit that some conflicts simply cannot be satisfactorily resolved,” Carter wrote.
Forgiveness is not allowing others to continue disrespectful behavior or saying the situation never happened, and it’s not pretending that the other person is a good friend or that no real pain has occurred, Carter added. There are times when even a forgiving person should remind someone that he or she still wants to be respected or seeks cooperation.
Rather, forgiveness is letting go of obsession about the other person’s behavior, ceasing repetitive requests for restitution, refusing to insult the other, and actively choosing calmness and peace as one goes forward in life, he added.
Some individuals have expressed letting go of hurt as not being tied to the anger, or being freed from the need to wrestle with the anger for valuable portions of their lives.
Change is possible and can happen
Childre and Rozman report that researchers have found interesting results regarding the possibility of change.
“Neuroscientists have found that the regions of the brain that get the most use literally expand (Schwartz and Begley 2002a),” they wrote. “For example, people who play the violin get more neurons assigned to the fingers of their left hand, which play the strings, than people who don’t use their left hand as much. …Those in the same study who were asked to rehearse by merely thinking about moving their left fingers produced brain changes comparable to those generated by violinists actually moving their fingers (Elbert et al. 1995). This study has tremendous implications. It means that whatever you focus on and repeat — whether negative thoughts and anger reactions or positive emotions — will increase the amount of brain territory devoted to those activities.”
The way that a person expresses anger is ultimately a choice.
Conflict is a time where you can reveal what you’re made of — strength and character — committed to fairness and reasonableness, he wrote.
“If you let it happen, lousy circumstances can bring out the best in you,” Carter added. ”They can force you to question who you really are, and whether you can be a decent person even in the midst of undesirable circumstances.”
Pfeffer wrote that there is a decreasing role of government regulation and unionization in the labor market, so workers need to many times fend for themselves.
“But human needs for safety and security — a part of Maslow’s hierarchy — and for social interaction are primal, existing regardless of competitive pressures, unions, government regulations, and the unemployment rate,” he wrote.
It can come down to choosing how someone wants to live; whether to carry past anger forward, or express it in the best way possible and then to move on.
“While there are plenty of uncaring company policies and uncaring supervisors and co-workers, unresolved anger is still your emotional responsibility,” Childre and Rozman wrote. “You are the one who victimizes yourself most. Blaming ‘her’ or ‘them’ is deflecting responsibility for your own energy and health.”
“Someone who incorporates truth, even when it is ugly, is willing to admit that painful events happen, yet they do not have to ultimately define a person,” he wrote. “By accepting the negative circumstances in their lives, such people are not necessarily letting go of their legitimate convictions, they are acknowledging there are other priorities in life that they want to accentuate.”
“The Anger Trap,” book by Les Carter, Ph.D., author, psychotherapist and speaker.
“Why ‘Modern’ Work Culture Makes People So Miserable,” by Jeffrey Pfeffer, Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University, posted on Fortune.com.
“Transforming Anger,” book by Doc Childre, founder of HeartMath, Inc. and Deborah Rozman, Ph.D., psychologist and president of HeartMath, Inc.