If you want to get angry at work, it’s better to be a man. Sexist though this sounds, it’s a finding from a recently published study conducted by psychologists at Arizona State University. Women, it seems, may have been right all along about stereotyping. An angry man is seen as more authoritative, whereas women become less influential if they get angry.
In fact, this study points to a general misunderstanding about anger in the workplace. We normally think of anger in terms of a kind of cinematic freakout with no redeeming attributes. But anger at work has some surprising upsides and can be very useful.
The Harvard Study of Adult Development has published research which shows those who bottle up workplace anger are more likely to say they have a reached a ceiling in their careers. In fact, not getting angry can have health implications too: research from the Stress Institute at the University of Sweden suggests that men who repress anger at work are more than twice as likely to have a heart attacks. Clearly getting it all out is better than keeping it in.
Nor are the benefits confined to the long-term. In their book, Step Up: Lead in Six Moments That Matter, the authors Henry Evans and Colm Foster write that some anger can also make you more effective in everyday situations. Being angry can narrow your focus and help prevent “paralysis by analysis.” Anger can also function as a spur to action and a confidence booster.
Anger needn’t damage workplace relationships either. According to a paper in the Human Resources Journal positive emotional events at work led to positives outcome 94pc of the time, but negative emotional events weren’t all that much worse – and led to positive outcomes 70pc of the time. Clearly, there is something to be said for clearing the air.
However, not all anger is created equal. Broadly there are two types. The first is emotional, furious, uncontrolled anger – think Joe Pesci in the pen scene in Goodfellas. The second, is calm, controlled anger – think Al Pacino in pretty much every scene in The Godfather. It hardly needs pointing out that the second kind is the better kind. If you fly off the handle and unload on a colleague – underling or boss – there’s every chance you’ll look a fool and find yourself apologising, humiliatingly, 20 minutes later.
If you are prone to outbursts and feel anger boiling up, you need to take five and calm down. You might take a deep breath, go for a short walk or even look up a random fact on Wikipedia. It doesn’t matter. The idea is you do something that pauses the volcanic eruption that is boiling between your ears – and this means don’t start ranting. You don’t turn into Joe Pesci.
That may be enough. If you’re still concerned you’re going to fly off the handle, try writing down what you want to say to the person on an email you’re not going to send. Then read it back to yourself. Does it make sense? Are you being reasonable? A more rigorous version of this is venting to a trusted colleague and asking them if you are being fair.
Once you’ve called down and collected your thoughts, go and speak to the person. Here, you don’t want to make it too personal. Take the “you” out of it and make it about the problem. If you say, “I”m very disappointed in the progress your project has made” this allows some room for the other person to manoeuvre and gives them chance to retain to retain a bit of dignity. “You’re useless,” allows none of this and makes it much harder to find a constructive way to move on, satisfying though it may be to say. You can still be angry, but it’s a cool, calm anger.
You need to allow the other person to have their say too, because they may have a perfectly legitimate reason for the project’s lack of progress. Ideally, you should then agree a way forward with some concrete goals and a timescale. That means you both know what is going to be done and when it’s when it’s going to be done by. There is no room for confusion and they know that you’re deadly serious. Hopefully, this means you won’t need to get angry with them again.
These three steps (calm down, talk to the person in a focused, objective way, find a way to move forward) should work for nearly all angry situations. And, what is more, they’ll work if someone is angry with you. You start by calming them down, de-escalating the situation and then turn it into a conversation about how you can move forward.
Finally, remember to use all anger judiciously and sparingly. Done right, workplace anger can be very useful, but if you’re known as “Mr Angry” around the office, you’re not doing it right.