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Article:   Workplace Anger: It's All the Rage

By Janet Pfeiffer
Employee Relations Today
January 19, 2011

We've all experienced anger in the workplace. A certain amount is expected and considered normal in any business. Yet in recent years angry outbursts seem to be on the rise both in frequency and intensity.

Of late, we've witnessed such shocking incidences as Omar Thorton's massacre at the Hartford Beer Distributors in Manchester, Conn. and Steven Slater's verbal tirade and dramatic departure from a JetBlue airplane. Both disgruntled employees chose hostile and aggressive ways of expressing their anger over what they claimed was their unhappiness and unfair treatment on the job.

Most of us can relate to each of these men and the frustration and discontent they felt over what they perceived as a hostile work environment. Yet there are countless others who are equally as dissatisfied with their jobs yet do not behave in such a deplorable manner. What causes some employees to react so violently and what can an employer do to lessen the chance of this happening within their company?

Very few of us were ever taught as children what we're really dealing with in regards to anger. Gaining a deeper understanding of this powerful emotion is the first step in being able to manage it more effectively and appropriately and avoid catastrophic events such as those I just mentioned.

For nearly 20 years, I have worked with angry employees, stressed out managers, frustrated teachers, court-ordered violent offenders, women of domestic violence and just plain angry people. I have found common threads in each case.

The Events That Trigger:

In the case of Omar Thorton, he believed he was being racially discriminated against for years at various jobs. Described by friends and family as a quiet, caring man, his rampage occurred as a result of what he felt to be the racial injustice he endured at Hartford Distributors. Claiming that people were making racial slurs within, as well as outside of, the company, his anger at the bigotry (and what he called 'hatred in people's hearts') festered inside of him and culminating in a violent outburst. Seeking justice, he took matters into his own hands and murdered 8 coworkers and injured two others before turning his gun on himself. His solution to resolving his anger was one of violence and destruction.

JetBlue flight attendant, Steven Slater, chose a less violent yet highly offensive and dramatic exit from his position with the Queens, NY, based airline. According to Slater, his angry outburst was the result of an uncooperative passenger who supposedly banged him on the head with his baggage, then cursed at him. When Slater demanded an apology, the passenger allegedly refused, prompting Slater to curse obscenities over the PA system, grab a few beers and deploy the aircraft's emergency chute, making a theatrical grand exit.

Who's to Blame: In both of these cases, each man blamed others for how they felt and subsequently their course of action. Neither took responsibility for their own feelings and behaviors. Blame renders one powerless and gives others the ability to control us. Feeling powerless in a situation we're uncomfortable in is the very definition of anger. We seek to regain control and an angry outburst will surely get the ball rolling. People stop and pay attention. They will often concede in an effort to get us to calm down. We feel powerful once again. However, the consequences of our actions can prove devastating in the long run. Both failed to seek alternative and more appropriate means of correcting an unhappy situation.

The Actual Cause:

In my latest book, The Secret Side of Anger, I clearly illustrate how anger is the direct result of unmet needs and expectations. We all go through life having specific needs and expecting things to be a certain way. We need to be heard, to be understood, to be treated fairly. We all need sleep, food, opportunity, companionship, love. We expect to be treated with respect, to be appreciated for our efforts and rewarded for our accomplishments.

The list of needs and expectations can be as long and complicated as you'd like or as short and simple as you make it. As long as our needs are met, we're reasonably content and easy to get along with. However, if we're denied something we feel is a necessity or that we're entitled to (what we 'should' have) we can easily become irate.

Case in Point:

Here's an example: one of my clients, I'll call her 'Sharon', was a very generous and thoughtful person. Whether family or friend, every important person in her life received flowers from her on their birthday. It was her way of showing how much she cared. She expected the same courtesy from each of them. Imagine her disappointment when a bouquet of roses didn't appear on her doorstep on Sept. 9! She flew into a rage. "I can't believe it - after all the times I've sent them flowers and on my birthday I get zip! I should give them all a piece of my mind!"

I asked her if those closest to her knew how much she wanted to receive flowers. "They should know!" she blurted out. ('Should' is an expectation, and an unrealistic on at that.) "After all, I buy for them!" "But have you ever told them exactly how you'd like them to remember you on your birthday?" "No, not exactly." "Then how can they know? They're not mind-readers, are they?" Her face softened a bit as she re examined her position. I continued. "If you want your needs to be met, you must make sure others understand what you're seeking Then you have to ask yourself if what you're requesting is fair and reasonable Is it?" She paused for a moment. "Probably not with some." "So, for those who are able and willing, how can you ensure that you will receive flowers from them in the future?" "I could ask." "And for the others?" "Well, they do remember my birthday in other ways. I guess I could be grateful for that." Ah, see how simple? By reevaluating her position, she immediately relinquished her anger.

In this particular case, the solution was pretty straightforward. Once Sharon understood that to a certain extent her expectations were unrealistic and a simple adjustment to one of a more reasonable nature could easily avert her anger, she was more at ease with the situation. When she explained how she felt to each party, some were happy to comply. Others explained their position to which Sharon responded with understanding. I also reminded her that as adults, it is our responsibility to satisfy our own needs, not the other party's. "Always have a plan B", I recommended. "If what you are really seeking are flowers, purchase them for yourself. That way, you'll be content and anger will not manifest."

So how does this apply on the job? Anger is anger. Whether in our personal or professional lives, the same principles hold true. Therefore, the first step in getting in touch with our anger (or in helping an angry coworker) is to examine our expectations and needs. Be careful not to confuse needs with wants. Needs are those things that are absolutely necessary for our survival and well being and there are really only a few. Wants and desires are all of the wishes, the hopes - those things that, if not forthcoming, one can be fine without. ('It would be nice if my boss would compliment me for a job well done but I'm fine knowing that I did my best.')

What could have been brewing in the mind of Thorton prior to his rampage? Let's assume he was subjected to prejudice on the job. Is it reasonable to expect that one will never encounter people who judge others based on skin color, age, ethnic back round or some other reason? Of course not. Human beings are imperfect and bigotry exists (that is not to say it is permissible or acceptable, just that it is a reality of life). Acceptance of those things we cannot change allows us to make peace with (not be happy about) them. I can then move on to what I do have power over.

Taking Action: Understanding that unfairness such as prejudice exists allows me to decide how I will handle myself when confronted with it. (Similar to inclement weather, the better prepared I am the less I likely I will be adversely effected when the situation presents itself.) Will I take action to correct it? Will I choose to allow it to roll of my back? Will I decide this is an unhealthy environment and remove myself from it? Each option allows me to make the decision that is in my best interest. It restores my personal power and alleviates feelings of victimization.

Slater knew full well that dealing with difficult passengers is a part of a flight attendant's job description. He could have anticipated the possibility of encountering a belligerent traveler and chosen a more appropriate response. Feeling disrespected when a requested apology was not forth coming (his expectation) only fueled his anger. Re evaluating the situation and putting it into proper perspective ('This is not a matter of life or death'), he could have chosen a more appropriate alternative: just let it slide or perhaps request assistance from another attendant.

A Matter of Perception

It's important to stress the significance and roll of perception (how I choose to view myself, others and the world in general) in relation to anger. I can label others jerks, ignorant, mean or racist. Labels such as these leave me feeling arrogant, indignant and angry. Relabeling, or changing how I view them, consequently changes how I feel about them. Troubled, struggling, unhappy, or stressed softens my perception and generates more compassionate emotions.

I can also view myself as a target or victim being unfairly treated or I can shift my perception and see myself as a student of the experience, here to learn one of life's valuable lessons. Every situation, I remind myself, has the potential to teach me an important lesson that will enrich my life. I am able to replace anger with understanding and acceptance. (Let me state here that this mind set in no way implies that I must allow others to mistreat me. Setting and enforcing fair and reasonable boundaries in relationships are crucial to establishing healthy interactions and are most effective if established from the get go.)

A Critical Mistake

One of the most critical mistakes we all make that causes our anger to escalate occurs when we become stuck on the problem. We are masters at finding fault - identifying what we are unhappy about. We think about it, obsess over it and then seek to hold someone else accountable. ('I hate my job. My boss is a jerk. That's why I'm always in such a bad mood.'). We seem unable (or unwilling) to seek solution. While it's important to identify what I'm not happy about (negative), it's equally as important to quickly move to solution (positive). Finding a way to improve on or resolve an issue allows me to assert my authority and have some influence over the outcome. Taking action restores a sense of power.

I encourage my clients to spend no more than 5 minutes explaining to me what is 'wrong'. The remainder of our time together is spent deciding how to make things better. Or, in the event that a person or situation will not change (it is what it is), we then focus on accepting what is and being at peace with it. And as I mentioned in the above paragraph, seeking the lessons and value in the experience alleviates feelings of victimization, resentment, frustration, bitterness and anger.

TECO Magic

People ask me all the time, "Is anger a choice?" My answer is an emphatic "YES" Most of us inadvertently believe that anger comes from what others are saying or doing. We make erroneous statements such as, 'You make me so mad!' Actually, every emotion we experience comes from a thought.

Here's an example: my boss takes the entire department out for dinner except me, the receptionist. I think to myself, 'How rude! She did that to hurt me. Apparently, she doesn't consider me as important as the rest of them.' The reality of why I was not invited has nothing at all to do with how I feel. It is my internal dialogue, my thoughts that generate feelings of hurt and anger. A change of thought, 'Perhaps it was an oversight or maybe it was a business dinner that didn't apply to me', can easily avert my anger. Truth and reality have little to do with it. It is my perception (thought) that creates feeling.

Understanding this principle allows me to choose my emotions, to have control over them. I decide how I want to feel. No one has the authority to do that for me. I have power and control over myself. And isn't that what we all seek? Anger is the direct result of a loss of power. Your only real power lies in thought. You and you alone choose you thoughts. Therefore, you also choose your emotions.

I read a report recently that said the average adult has over 60,000 thoughts a day. 60,000! I can't even remember 60 let alone 1,000 times that amount. If I'm not paying attention to what I'm thinking then subsequently I'm not paying attention to my (60,000) feelings. I am not deciding what emotions I want to enjoy.

Why is it so important to pay attention to what we think and feel? Because all behavior is the direct result of what we feel. Behavior is an external expression of an internal issue. Every choice we make is a reflection of our emotional state Omar Thorton, angry over his situation, acted out in rage. Had his internal dialogue said something to the effect of, 'I can forgive those who are prejudice' or 'I'm grateful to have a job. I don't need to concern myself with what others think about me. I'm fine with who I am', he could have alleviated anger and created a very different outcome.

Keep in mind that negative thoughts produce negative feelings. Positive thoughts generate positive feelings. Choice of action (behavior) follows suit. And every choice has an outcome. TECO Magic:   Thought>Emotion>Choice>Outcome. Thoughts create Emotions which influence the Choices we make which then result in an Outcome.

Applying this principle to our lives, one can see how the end result of whatever is occurring is the direct result of thought. The more I choose my thoughts, the more I decide the course of my life, in all areas. One can also apply this equation in the reverse as well. If I am not happy with my situation, I need to examine what thoughts ultimately lead to this event.

Here's a perfect example: nothing ever seems to work out for my client, 'Kim'. She claims to be doing everything she needs to do at her place of employment yet she's always being reprimanded by her superior. "It's not my fault. This guy just doesn't like me. I can't stand going to work but I can't quit. I need the money." She was seething with rage. (Hmm, not her fault: sound like blame to me and you know how I feel about blame.) "Let's take a look at what's not working for you. You claim that your boss picks on you and finds fault with everything you do. How is the quality of your work?" I asked. "Well, probably not as good as it could be but that's only because I hate my job" (Blame again.) "So, the Outcome is unfavorable. What exactly are you doing that makes your work inferior?" "I don't always finish my assignments on time. (Choice.) But it's torture for me!" "How do you feel when you arrive at work?" I continued. "I dread it from the moment I wake up." (Emotion.) "Why? What are you saying to yourself at that time?" "I can't stand my job and I hate my boss and I don't want to be there." (Thoughts, internal dialogue.)

"What if I showed you how you could make things better for yourself without quitting your job or having your boss fired?" The skeptical look on her face let gave me a glimpse of what was running through her mind "I want you to play a little head game for the next few weeks. Every morning, I want you to say to yourself, "I'm ok with my job. I'm grateful to have one in this bad economy. I want to feel good about the kind of employee I am so today I will do my best and feel proud of myself." Somewhat reluctantly, she agreed to try our little experiment. For the next two weeks, she repeated her affirmations each morning when she awoke and periodically throughout the day. When she returned to my office, I asked how she was doing. "Much better", she stated. "I have a very different attitude and work is bearable. I guess because I'm more conscientious my boss isn't on my case as much. I don't feel nearly as angry and stressed out. But I'm still going to look for another job." And that's ok. But in the meantime, life at work is much easier.

Creating a More Peaceful Work Environment

In reducing job site anger, it is critical that employees first and foremost provide the two most important elements in any work environment.

  1. First, all employees have a right to be safe and to know they are not at risk for any violence, physical harm, verbal assaults, degrading criticisms, vicious rumors or unsafe working conditions. Additionally, if they need to address an issue with another worker or management, it's imperative there not be negative repercussions for doing so. Setting and enforcing strict company policies and providing sensitivity training for all management and staff will help ensure this.

  2. Second: each worker has a right to be valued and respected. Lack of appreciation is one of the most frequent complaints I hear from my clients. Feeling devalued leads to low morale and anger.

  3. Next, it is important that when a conflict or dispute arises and both parties have shared their concerns, the focus immediately shift to that of solution. Remember, positive thoughts lead to positive results. If a situation is unchangeable, at that particular time or in the manner in which one desires, encourage the individual to accept that for now 'it is what it is' and find a way of being at ease with it.

  4. Remember, too, there are multiple solutions to any problem at hand. Seek alternative methods of resolving whatever is not working. Ask for outside help if necessary. Make sure the solutions are non violent or offensive and that on some level satisfy the needs of all involved. (Unmet needs = anger.)

  5. Have the individual examine their expectations and needs: are they fair and reasonable for all parties involved, within this particular company, in the manner in which they are seeking and at this time? If not, encourage them to redefine their expectations to something more realistic. Keep them as simple and basic as possible. The more detailed they are, the more terms and conditions they place on how to resolve them, the more challenging they becomes. Emphasize, too, that it is not always the responsibility of the business to provide all of their needs. Some may be satisfied by the worker themselves. Others can be a joint effort.

  6. Practice emotional detachment (and it does take practice). Do not take personal offense to what others are saying or doing. Remember their behavior, however irrational or inappropriate it may seem to you, is an expression of what lies within them. Set boundaries if the behaviors are offensive or potentially harmful to you.

  7. Encourage each individual to take ownership in their feelings, thoughts, and actions. Reinforce TECO Magic and help them choose positive thoughts. This is the first step to changing any situation. Remember, refrain from blame as it renders one powerless (definition of anger) and leads to feelings of victimization.

  8. When one feels themselves becoming angry with another, practice the SWaT Strategy: Stop, Walk and Talk. Immediately Stop what you're doing. Excuse yourself and Walk away, taking the necessary time to cool off. Third, Talk yourself calm. Remember, self talk will determine whether you cause your anger to escalate or allow it to calm down. Once you have regained your composure and are calm and rational, return to the original situation and complete what you started.

  9. Refocus to what is positive - what I like about job, who I get along with, being the best I can be, feeling grateful I have a job.

  10. Seek the lessons, always seek the lessons. This step is critical in replacing anger with gratitude. Remember my client, 'Sharon'? She unfairly lost her job last year and was devastated and furious. I helped her to see how the end of her employment is actually the beginning of a new phase of her life. After a few private sessions with me, she realized she had settled for a 'job' and deserved more out of life (her lesson). She was now ready for a real career. She re enrolled in a local college to finish her degree in criminal justice. And in the meantime, she started a canine-related business and has never been happier.

Remember that anger is not a bad feeling. It is a normal, healthy and often useful emotion. What we choose to do with it determines whether it becomes a positive or negative force in our lives. With a deeper understanding and some simple yet profound skills, anyone can significantly reduce the amount and intensity of their anger on or off the job. Some say if you have your health you have everything. I believe that when you have inner peace you have it all. "We cannot be a world at peace until we are first a people of peace." - Janet Pfeiffer

Copyrite 2010, Janet Pfeiffer

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