Manage Your Anger Effectively
“If you do not wish to be prone to anger, do not feed the habit; give it nothing which may tend to its increase.”
– Epictetus (Greek Philosopher; 55-135 CE)
While Epictetus has the theory down, putting this into practice can often be a challenge, especially as the pace of work continues to increase along with workplace pressures. Anger, by definition, is a strong feeling of annoyance, displeasure, or hostility. There is a range, from mildly frustrated to aggression, which we demonstrate depending on the situation and our personality.. Not to make light of frustration, annoyance or displeasure, but it is anger and aggression that cause the greatest impact in a workplace and as a result will be the main focus. In this article, we explore what personality traits contribute to anger, tools to modify these traits, and finally some actions to take when you find yourself in the middle of an emotionally charged situation.
Impact of Anger on You and the Organization
It is sometimes easy for us to dismiss our frustrations and anger as nothing big. However, frequent anger or aggressive outbursts can be detrimental not only to your relationships, but to your health. Aggressive personalities are more susceptible to heart attacks, high cholesterol and high blood-pressure (WebMD). This also puts them at increased risk of stroke, cancer, depression, and substance abuse. Clearly high levels of anger are unhealthy, but what is the cost of having a hot head to your organization?
According to a ’93 national Safe Workplace Institute study, workplace violence costs over $4.2 billion each year. The Bureau of Justice reports about 500,000 violent crimes in the workplace, which represents about 1.8 million lost workdays.
These numbers do not measure the decrease in productivity and profitability of your organization. They also do not discuss the impact of these outbursts on the rest of the staff. Having an angry personality in your company can decrease teamwork and collaboration, lead to cliques, cause people to walk on eggshells, increase stress and anxiety levels and may lead to increased absenteeism and even the loss of your top talent.
Is being angry worth all these negative consequences?
Personality and Anger
As you recall from previous white papers or from the SmartMANAGER course, our personality is split into 6 Ego States: Critical Parent, Nurturing Parent, Adult, Spontaneous Child, Withdrawn Child, and Angry Child. All of us have all of these at some level and we are able to turn them up or down. You can learn more about ego states in our Multi-Rater Personality Inventory description or this description of transactional analysis. It is not one but a combination of all these ego states that contribute to an aggressive or anger-prone personality. To illustrate this point, we will use the extreme circumstance of a complete lunatic but from here it is easier to identify which ego state(s) contribute most to your anger.
The first is an overpowering Critical Parent. When this occurs, we see a person who has aggressive impulses and has difficulty in keeping an open mind. In other words, they expect you to either be on board or get out of their way. They have low patience and want a quick solution, often without thinking about the consequences. Already we can see the foundation of someone who can fly off the handle.
A detracted Nurturing Parent on its’ own is unlikely to lead to anger, however it does contribute to a defensive or angry position when we are critiqued or we feel that we are being taken advantage of. A detracted score also indicates a person who has a preoccupation with their own issues and concerns as well as being resentful or jealous towards others. These negative emotions can, over time, lead to displeasure and hostility: anger.
Our Adult Ego State is where our logical, mature, problem solving behaviors come from. Not surprisingly, a detracted Adult results in emotion-based decision making and responding to situations in a haphazard manner, often escalating them. Similarly, an elevated Spontaneous Child indicates a sensitivity to criticism and a lack of composure under pressure. It also suggests the use of sarcasm as a defense mechanism, which has a tendency to annoy those around you. These will not necessarily contribute as an underlaying cause of your anger, but will certainly escalate you to that point if you are not aware.
At first glance, our Withdrawn Child should not be a factor in anger and at the surface level you are correct. However, it can contribute to internalization of frustrations in combination with the other Ego States. The issue with internalizing is that the frustrations are not dealt with and they continue to fester, which may lead to an outburst.
Finally, and not surprisingly, an overpowering Angry Child Ego State indicates one-sided approaches to issues that are reacted to impulsively and emotionally. Additionally, this is where our irrational and violent behavior will come from if the score is very high.
As you can see, it is not one single aspect of our personality but a combination of our Ego States that leads to an angry, aggressive outburst. So what can we do to not get hooked by our environment and colleagues?
Cognitive Restructuring and Delaying Anger Through Awareness
The main take away from the above is that we are often the cause of our anger. Once we understand this, we can adjust our perceptions and reactions to have a productive and problem-solving “Adult-to-Adult” conversation.
Before we get into some steps you can take if you find yourself in a conflict situation, here are several tips that you can practice in an emotionally-neutral setting that will bring your Ego State scores closer to their ideal ranges:
- Consistently challenge your perceptions: is your opinion fact or based on perception?
- Take responsibility for the consequences of your action, both good and bad
- Ask for input and opinions of others
- Smile at babies, animals, your colleagues, they are contagious and improve your mood!
- Genuinely compliment others on their work and personal accomplishments
- Take an interest in your team, checking in with them (different than checking up)
Practicing these behaviors will help make you more aware of how your communication lands with others, while also bringing your perceptions to your attention. Furthermore, it will help you understand what hooks you and as a result will give you cues to watch out for to avoid potentially negative interactions.
Eventually, however, we all get hooked and feel our blood start to boil. When emotionally charged, whether from criticism or being under pressure, we need to first stop our quick response. The simple process of pausing before responding allows you to consider your initial response.
This is a great time to switch from “telling” to actively listening by asking a question or acknowledging the comment. In tense situations, many of us tend to allow our emotions to dictate our assumptions and we take a self-centered view of the events. Letting them talk will not only help in clarifying the situation, but will also give you time to check your perceptions and assumptions. From their perspective, it gives them a chance to vent, which by itself may deescalate the situation. This does not mean allow them to insult or attack you or others, and it is important to set those limits, but there is something relaxing about getting everything off one’s chest that helps. Use this to validate their feelings and verify that you understand where they are coming from or what they are dealing with.
Finally, taking the moment to listen also gives you time to consider the consequences. Ask yourself “Is getting angry going to help or make the situation worse?” or “How is this going to impact those around me?”.
Sometimes, despite all our preparation and efforts to stay calm, a situation escalates. What can we do then?
4 Ways to Calm an Angry Situation
The first is delay, which we discussed above. Taking a breath or asking for a moment and excusing yourself from the situation are both effective in reducing anger. Research has shown that physical exertion is a great outlet for anger, so if you do take an extended delay, run on the spot or air box.
Our parents always told us to “take a deep breath and calm down.” They were right! Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, or tensing-relaxing exercises all help in reducing anger. This is difficult to do in the heat of the moment, but I am personally a big fan of taking a deep breath as I tense every muscle then relaxing as I exhale. It takes under three seconds, but it works!
Distraction is a great tactic, especially if you work in a busy office. Call someone else into the situation, point out the weather, ask about their shirt…the topic is not important, it’s merely a means to distract them from the sensitive topic.
Finally, incompatible responses change the subject so dramatically that the other person has to stop and think about what you said. For example, if you’re arguing over a process and the other person says “This is complete garbage, there is no way I will take orders from such an incompetent person”, respond with something like “Dave, did you know that the Raptors are going for their fourth straight win tonight?”. The statement is so disconnected that Dave will take a second to register, which is a great time to either end the conversation until you are both calmer or to use the tips from the above section to clarify the situation and work towards a solution.
Through all of this, it is important to note that the tone, rate, and volume of your voice have a huge impact. A condescending or caustic tone is going to make matters worse, as will raising your voice and speaking quickly. Try to maintain an engaged tone while speaking at a normal volume and a slightly reduced pace. Our natural instinct is to mimic, especially in high emotional states (part of the reason mobs can grow in size and become violent, everyone follows the ring leader).