The Value of Anger at Work

Anger is an issue that comes up at every level with our clients: frustrated bosses; disrespected peers; under-appreciated staff people. Feelings get pent up at work and often come out in unproductive ways – temper tantrums, swearing, storming out of meetings, email screed – we’ve seen it all. In fact, relationship flare-ups account for about 70% of disagreements in the workplace, and they are almost always unhelpful. (The other 30% are about strategy and process.). 

Contrary to what you might think, anger actually has a number of benefits. Research shows that, in evolutionary terms, anger has historically helped humans beat back or deflect aggressors. It can also be a great generator of creative energy. And, anger is even an indication of optimism: a frustration  with present circumstances, reflecting a belief in a possibly better future..

No matter how beneficial anger might be, there’s a not-so-unwritten rule that anger isn’t supposed to happen at work. But, of course, it does. The good news is that anger in the workplace provides a valuable signal: somebody is at their wits end and needs help. They’ve literally exhausted their tools for calmly managing the issue at hand. Once their tools run out, anger takes over.

For managers, anger is a signal that there are skills they need to strengthen. How can they clearly communicate strategy or motivate others to make decisions? What actions can they take over time so that underperforming staff either get better or move on?

Anger can also be a signal that peers and staff feel disrespected or under-appreciated for the work that they do. They’re not being recognized for their contributions, or they’re being overworked, or left out when they have value to bring. The result can be that these wrung-out colleagues cover even their most productive communication with a thick coating of irritation or resignation.

If you’re a leader, the next time you see anger come up in your workplace or team, or with yourself, don’t just squelch it. That F-bomb or tantrum is actually an opportunity. Use that red flag to try to understand where it’s coming from, what you can learn from it, and what you or your colleagues might need in order to perform better.

What could anger in your workplace be teaching you?

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