What is anger?
Physiologically, anger evokes a common response in people. As hormones are released by the adrenal glands, muscles tense, blood pressure increases, heart rate accelerates, and breathing becomes more rapid.
Anger is a natural and basic emotion. It’s usually a reaction to a real or perceived threat, and can vary from mild irritation to rage.
Like fear, anger is tied to our instinct for self-preservation. But instead of warning us about potential physical harm, anger helps tell us when our intellectual being, our integrity, or our “self” is under attack. Feeling angry is a good indicator that something is wrong with a situation, circumstance, or relationship.
As a general rule, anger is thought to stem from two emotional states:
- frustration when you fail to get what you want, and
- a sense that your feelings are being disrespected or disregarded.
Because anger is a very personal emotion, the stimuli tend to be personal too. Common anger stimuli include betrayal, disapproval, deprivation, exploitation, humiliation, manipulation, restriction, and threat.
The stimuli for anger may be external or internal, direct or indirect. For instance, you might find yourself becoming angry with someone who has just disrespected you — a direct and external stimuli.
Or, perhaps someone says an idea is stupid and even though it’s not your idea, you react angrily. This may be a reaction to a past experience, such as being called stupid as a child, and is an example of indirect, internal stimuli.
Anger affects perceptions, interpretations, thinking, and behavior. In fact, angry people are less likely to be able to think rationally. With all these elements of communication adversely impacted, it’s easy to see how anger can have damaging effects in the workplace.
Understanding your anger
Your organization may discourage the expression of anger, thinking it has no place at work. But the reality is that anger is part of normal work interactions.
Disagreements among coworkers aren’t uncommon. Differences in opinion, approaches to work, or understanding can easily lead to disagreement and even anger. But exploring how you express anger can help you deal appropriately with it and avoid the potential negative outcomes of anger.
For instance, do you tend to overreact, letting your emotions direct your actions and possibly igniting the tempers of others? Or do you tend to repress your anger, releasing it in more subtle ways — such as by refusing to participate? Either way, your anger is counterproductive.
Learning to manage your anger will help you avoid expressing your anger in negative or counterproductive ways. You can begin by attempting to understand your anger. Looking at how often you get angry, and how intense your anger is, is a good start.
Drawing on the experience of Dr. W. Doyle Gentry — an anger management specialist — feeling angry not at all, or up to five times a week is normal and healthy. If you feel angry more than this, you should explore your anger and find ways to reduce your exposure to triggers and learn ways to manage your anger.
Another important component of your anger is how intensely you express anger in the workplace. According to Dr. Gentry, on a scale of one to ten an intensity of six or below is within the normal, healthy range. However, a rating any higher than six is worrisome and is an indicator that you may have a problem with anger. How do you think you rate on the anger intensity scale?
Combine frequency with intensity and you’ll gain a more complete understanding of your anger and its potentially negative effects on coworkers, productivity, and effectiveness in the workplace. Being angry can also have serious effects on your physical and mental well being. Leaving your anger unchecked is not a plausible solution professionally or personally.
Responding to angry feelings
Now that you’ve considered the impact of frequency and intensity on anger, consider how it’s managed. Typically, when people feel angry they overexpress it, repress it, or calm it internally.
When anger is overexpressed you can clearly see and understand that a person is angry. They may yell, say hurtful and inappropriate things, become physical, and even violent.
When anger is repressed, you may never know a person is angry. Repressed anger, while never directly expressed as anger, is generally expressed passive-aggressively.
Repressed anger may manifest as uncooperative behavior, forgetfulness, and missed deadlines. Sometimes repressed anger may be released in a sudden outburst at an unintended or inappropriate target.
Calm it internally
Some people develop an ability to calm anger internally without ever expressing it directly or indirectly. When individuals have learned to manage their anger this way, you won’t know they’re angry. They also don’t retaliate in ways that have destructive effects on coworkers and the workplace.
Understanding expressions of anger
Anger isn’t always a negative thing. Many professionals who study anger believe that if managed and expressed properly, anger can be productive and can even contribute to positive outcomes at work. Positive outcomes may include improved relationships and communication, as well as process improvements and other constructive changes in the workplace.
One anger specialist who believes anger can be positive and productive is licensed clinical social worker Mark Gorkin. Gorkin has developed a model to help explore and explain how anger is expressed. He begins by differentiating between the usefulness and intention behind the expression of anger.
Anger expression is constructive when it reflects a person’s integrity and values while respecting others. Predominantly, this is an objective and rational response to the anger felt.
When anger is expressed in a destructive way, it tends to be personalized and exaggerated. It’s influenced by a person’s vulnerabilities and lacks respect for others.
A purposeful response to anger is an intentional expression. Some thought goes into figuring out how anger will be communicated and what the desired outcome is. This involves significant self-control.
You may express anger differently in different situations — sometimes constructive and purposeful, and other times perhaps more destructive and spontaneous. Returning to Gorkin’s model, combining the elements of usefulness and intention yields very different outcomes — some more positive than others. The four combinations are purposeful and constructive, purposeful and destructive, spontaneous and constructive, and spontaneous and destructive.
Gorkin then assigns a single word to describe the expression of anger that results by combining each of the individual expressions. Gorkin uses the word assertion to describe anger when purposeful and constructive expressions combine.
Assertion describes the expression of anger, where one is mindful of the need for a productive resolution. Self-control helps the person remain calm and rational as she asserts herself — explaining why she’s angry and what it will take to resolve the anger. Meanwhile, the values and opinions of others are respected, which increases the likelihood of a constructive resolution. You should always aim to be
Purposeful and destructive expressions of anger often stem from a person’s vulnerabilities. Hostility is the word used by Gorkin to describe this combination. Hostility is often a defensive expression, the intention, whether conscious or not, is to attack or retaliate. This response isn’t a very useful way of resolving what sparked the anger in the first place.
Hostile anger expression will typically be accompanied by the use of blame, judgment, or guilt-inducing accusations. Passive-aggressive behavior can also be an outlet for this type of anger. Clearly, you should avoid the hostile expression of anger at work.
A spontaneous and constructive response to anger may be best associated with passion. A passionate expression is generally sparked by pure emotion and pain. This is an immediate and unplanned response to anger. Passion is likely to be the result when the anger stimulus touches on something you have strong feelings about, your principles, or your values.
Some self-control is still evident, and feelings and expectations will likely be expressed. However, individuals who express their anger this way may realize they’re not in a position to deal with the anger productively, and may request a time-out to collect their thoughts before moving on to resolve the situation. A positive outcome is still possible.
Rage is what you’ll witness when the response to anger is spontaneous and destructive. Rage is an exaggerated, highly emotional response. It may be rooted in an experience from the past. It’s not planned and generally is not useful.
Rage probably best exemplifies the stereotypical expression of anger. You’re likely to hear yelling and cursing, and may witness threatening, belligerent, and abusive behavior and even violence. Rage like this is nonproductive and damaging and should not be tolerated in the workplace.
Anger is a natural, powerful emotion. Learning to recognize and manage anger can help bring about a productive outcome. Aside from keeping employees on task and working cooperatively, anger can bring about improvements to procedures, processes, products, or services. Anger can also be the catalyst for goal attainment.
Everyone experiences and expresses anger differently. However, four anger responses are typical: purposeful and constructive, purposeful and destructive, spontaneous and constructive, and spontaneous and destructive. At work, you should strive to remain respectful and productive. A purposeful and constructive response, expressed as assertion, is best and should be encouraged.