What triggers anger? In this realm perception is reality. Yes, it’s all in your head. Whether we feel anger, anxiety, sadness or joy in a certain situation is a result of the meaning we assign to it.
In this post, I am distinguishing anger, the emotion, from hostile or aggressive behaviour which sometimes accompanies it. The communication of the emotion of anger, without verbal or physical aggression, is communication no matter how offensive it is to the listener. Understanding anger is the first step to being able to cope with its influence in the workplace. Anger is a natural feeling that is neither good nor bad. It can be managed in the workplace so as to minimize aggression. If employees understand that it is acceptable to feel anger, they will be less defensive about communicating anger and therefore better able to find positive ways to act on it. Managers and employees need to have the skills to deal with the communication of anger and to build on its motivating potential.
We all have the tendency to perceive ourselves as the lead actor in a play and to analyse other people’s behaviour in relation to ourselves. We tend to see ourselves as innocent and good and those around us are either supporters or antagonists, good or bad. Our focus on “I” leads us to believe that other people see the situation as we do. We think, “They know they are hurting us”. We have implicit rules such as “You should not do anything to hurt me.” Then we may apply the rules rigidly making us vulnerable to the behaviour of others. “The more we relate irrelevant events to ourselves and exaggerate the significance of relevant events, the more easily we are hurt” (Beck, 27). Our own self-protective rules are inevitably broken by other people , who are also acting within their own egocentric perspective.
The paradox is that the more we apply these rules that we construct to protect ourselves, the more we are vulnerable to the behaviour of others.
Anger is not the first response to an offence against our rules according to Dr Beck (31). The initial response is distress, sometimes very subtle and fleeting. The common element of the distress that precedes anger is a feeling of being diminished in some way. If the person perceives that the feeling of distress is caused by another person then he or she is poised to counterattack. If we perceive the threat is due to an impersonal situation such as sickness or economic crisis then we may be upset or unhappy but not angry.
In our prehistoric past it may have been useful to react in either-or fashion to discriminate friend from foe, predator from prey. But we no longer need the margin of safety which was useful when our physical survival was at stake.
Is there a gender difference in the expression of anger? According to one author, men are socialized to believe that they must be brave, show few feelings and suffer in silence. They are encouraged to use their anger to fight back against threat, injustice, frustration and feelings of low self-esteem (Allcorn, 62).
Socialization encourages women to be submissive and dependant and avoid being competitive or aggressive. The threat of being labelled as unfeminine if they are not passive, may encourage women to redirect anger against themselves. A woman may believe for example that it is her fault that a conflict developed with a male in the workplace even though this was not the case. Disapproval, abandonment and harming others are so feared by some women that any expression of anger is accompanied by tears, guilt and sorrow which tend to nullify the anger in favour of maintaining the connection of the relationship.
Changing self-destructive and self-defeating interpersonal dynamics requires women to become assertive. To be able to assert her self-interest the woman needs to be comfortable with being angry and acting on the anger. Achievement and creativity are closely related to self-assertion and angry motivations expressed constructively in person’s life. (Allcorn, 63-67) Workplace programs encouraging self-assertion must take these factors into consideration.
Mastering anger in the workplace requires an understanding of the concepts of anger and learning how to communicate in the presence of anger. If fear of anger is a factor in your workplace it is time to invest in training for managers and employees.
Most people would rather be angry than terribly sad.
J.J. Ratey and C. Johnson, Shadow Syndromes
The best time to manage anger is before it happens.
W. D. Gentry, Anger -Free: Ten Basic Steps to Managing Your Anger
Anger , though a vital ingredient in individual and social life, is inherently a somewhat elusive emotion. No group or society can encourage a fully free indulgence in anger.
C. Stearns and P. Stearns, Anger: The Struggle for Emotional Control in America’s History
For more about anger see Common Ground #17 Summer 2002. For references see www.munncrs.com and Common Ground #20 Spring 2003.