Rage in the Workplace, Should We Fear It?

American business practices prop a myth of an “angry manager” — one who flies into rage and tirades, though overall keeps employees on their toes. Not lazy. Keeps the organization focused, driven, competitive, profitable.

In the technology sector, some of the most poignant examples come from Steve Ballmer and his infamous tirades at the helm of Microsoft. Fun and games. Corporate execs behaving as if they were pro football coaches or drill sergeants. Shouting. Motivating. Competing. Behavior considered as ’Murican as Football.

Sometimes this rage can be emblematic of economic downturns. Rosabeth Moss Kanter described in the HBR article Workplace Rage:

If fewer and fewer people are asked to do more and more, and then told to smile about it, their rage will grow.

Kanter’s points, circa 2010, resound even more clearly today:

This can’t be adequately dealt with solely by training, counseling, or tips for spotting disaffected employees. The root causes reach into the culture itself. One issue is declining civility.

Speaking as a manager, circa 2016, one cannot help but notice the declining civility. Employees are taking time off work because they are sickened by events in the news. Police murdering people of color. People murdering police. Mass shootings. Violent outlash.

‘Murican as Football

Barely a day goes by when we aren’t confronted by increasingly sickening news, YouTube clips of innocents as they are getting shot. Automatic weapons spray in a nightclub. Sniper fire in a metro area. Events appearing to accelerate, toward an eschatology drenched in gore. The common thread through these acts is some mentally disturbed individual (racists included) acting out in rage, making accusations, pulling triggers. While others die senselessly.

Rage Monster Anti-Pattern

A case study: I interviewed at tech start-up in Palo Alto (which we’ll call “N”) circa 2009. The firm was known for an “aggressive” work culture, albeit not for profitability. There had been reports of emotional reasoning by key executives, taken to extremes.

The CTO (whom we’ll call “DD”) during a 1:1 asked an interview question about Big Data analytics. He wanted me to describe how to use Hadoop to calculate statistical estimators at scale, to optimize revenues. Then immediately he flew into a tirade, stating how he was angry that statistical estimators were not exact, imprecise. “DD” jumped up and down, shouting, not unlike Ballmer’s antics on stage. Angry at mathematics.

It was like a cringe-worthy scene from Silicon Valley, except that it wasn’t. Talking with several “N” employees later, these outbursts by “DD” were a regular thing. It had a chilling effect on the company culture. Employees lived in fear of their CTO.

His boss, the CEO (whom we’ll call “GB”), in her segment of my interview later that morning conducted a five minute stare-down. In silence. It was creepy, bordering on sociopathic. Recalling a meme: “It rubs the compiler on its code or else it gets the hose again.”

That behavior by “GB” demonstrates a flip side of the Rage Monster anti-pattern. An almost necessary component, where an executive tacitly condones or sponsors the rage — systematically through inaction. Don’t ask, don’t tell.

An engineering director called me later that evening, having heard about “DD” and “GB”, trying to recover the situation. He asked me to disregard their bad behavior. He’s now an exec at Facebook, highly accomplished, a friend for whom I have great respect. However, that evening we both knew his situation was doomed. Within a few months the company “N” tanked. Top engineering talent fled to Twitter, Facebook, etc., some amidst retaliation lawsuits.

Fear Itself

I know of another firm, an SMB with ~500 employees, where a senior manager demonstrates similar behaviors as “DD” above. Said senior manager is highly regarded by executives for bringing in revenue, making quarterly numbers consistently. A high-performer. All the “great” qualities that Rana Foroohar described about GE’s former celebrity CEO Jack Welch in Makers and Takers.

Even so, several key employees have left the firm, citing that senior manager as a major reason for their departure. Frequent accusations, outbursts of rage, classic signs of “Cluster B” personality disorders. Remaining employees do not feel safe. Some gather to speak in hushed tones about how to avoid the senior manager, how not to get fired for crossing paths with what appears to be a Rage Monster. The internal dynamic of the company follows the anti-pattern described above.

I question the very act of managers playing party to this anti-pattern. It is immoral and negligent. Our people are struggling, we are struggling, with the acceleration of senseless massacres. People are understandably afraid — for themselves, their families, friends, co-workers, etc. Who knows when and where the next senseless act of rage will strike? Fear abounds.

Yet we ask our employees to come into the workplace and ignore those fears wholesale. Look past acts of rage by those in positions of power, who rule through accusation, contempt, blame, outburst. Don’t ask, don’t tell.

That tacit commercial leveraging of Cluster B personality disorders — rage within the workplace — in the name of competitiveness and profitability has crossed a threshold. As we mourn the deaths of 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, the deaths of five police officers in Dallas, the murder of Philando Castile in Minnesota, and now countless others … that complicity crosses a threshold into immoral behavior.

Legal Responsibility

As Kanter described, we cannot resolve this crisis merely through training and counseling. We cannot ask employees not to fear the rage they encounter in the workplace. That itself is immoral. Their fears are genuine. The fear-installing behaviors of Rage Monster at the SMB described above are in many ways almost indistinguishable from the rage and accusations of Omar Mateen in the days leading up to his horrible shooting spree at Pulse.

Instead, to hijack the tagline from DHS: If you feel something is wrong, fear something may be wrong. We must leverage our innate senses as humans, speak out in groups when rage is not confronted by leaders. Dare to do the right thing. You and the people you care about don’t have to become victims.

There’s a growing recognition of the cost of toxic workplace environments. Realistically, HR departments embroiled in the Rage Monster anti-pattern are much more likely to lean toward Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell inaction — or worse, blame-the-victim. That may be changing. And soon.

Given the growing wave of violence and mass murder, who knows when and where the next senseless act of rage will strike? Our fears evolved for a reason. A commanding officer from West Point once instructed our US Army unit: Fear is useful, it keeps you alive on the battlefield. Unfortunately, civilians in America now live on a visceral battlefield.

Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policies that condone or even sponsor Cluster B personality disorders in the workplace have crossed a threshold into criminal negligence. When you sense rage in the workplace, when you feel fear, that’s a good reason. Band together and demand eradication. Before the next senseless act strikes. Regardless of HR inaction, or corp exec inaction.

Board of Directors meetings may soon be grappling with the consequences of employees who are afraid to come to work. Much more immediately, the appearance of systematic fear in the workplace — given the backdrop of real violence in our cities — is enough to give BoD’s serious worries about legal liabilities. Ultimately, ’Murican corporatist drive toward competitiveness and profitability at any cost must take second place to their own criminal indictments. Or worse, execs and BoD directors themselves becoming victims as Rage Monsters spiral out of control.

Restore civility, or the raging madness could strike us all.