Anger at work
Anger and hostility are known to be linked to increased risks of coronary heart disease. But is it ever appropriate – or even beneficial – to express anger in the workplace?
In the popular business press, I have seen headlines along the lines of ‘Anger can be helpful in negotiations’ and ‘It pays to get angry in a negotiation – if you do it right’. Indeed, research from the early 2000s and up to around 2010 showed that negotiators who expressed anger often extracted concessions from their negotiation counterparts – probably because angry negotiators were seen as tougher.
More to lose
Later, more sophisticated investigations have produced a more nuanced picture of the effects of anger. Researchers led by Lu Wang at the University of New South Wales in Australia found that negotiators who expressed anger did gain overt concessions from their opponents. However, the same opponents also became more likely to engage in covert forms of retaliation.
In other words, anger may help you to win in the face-to-face part of a negotiation, but you risk losing more because your opponent may be on the lookout for ways to sabotage you secretly.
In separate investigations, researchers led by the University of Michigan’s Shirli Kopelman trained negotiators in either a warm or tough negotiating style. Warm negotiators were coached to avoid hostility, frame negotiations as a partnership and leave their opponents feeling good; tough negotiators were taught to begin with extreme positions, be persistent and even display openly hostile and negative behaviour.
Across a series of studies, the warm negotiators tended to get better results. For example, warm negotiators were twice as likely to secure deals with their opponents than tough ones. Often, then, being tough may simply cause opponents to walk away.
Anger among colleagues
Negotiations are a very specific situation. However, anger among colleagues in the workplace is not uncommon. For example, I have encountered leaders who believed that showing their anger and disapproval of poor results motivated their employees to work harder.
Actual data suggest that displays of anger have complex effects. A team headed by the University of Chicago’s Celia Gaertig found that while displaying mild anger boosted people’s status, displaying high levels reduced people’s status – they were viewed as both less competent and less warm. So, low-intensity anger may indeed increase your standing but too much is likely to harm your effectiveness.
Gaertig’s team also found that individuals who expressed extreme anger could to a degree mitigate the harm done by their emotional outburst by explaining why their reaction was appropriate and what triggered it. If you do lose your temper, at least explain why in order to limit the harm to your reputation.
Other work directed by Tanja Schwarzmüller at the Technical University of Munich likewise questioned the effectiveness of anger for motivating performance. These scientists found that displays of anger by leaders boosted overt work effort in followers. At the same time, though, followers were more likely to engage in covert antisocial behaviours such as gossiping and talking in a demeaning way about their leaders to others.
The results of these and other studies suggest that the effects of anger on colleagues are not entirely beneficial. Determination and confidence are admirable. However, people who demonstrate anger in the workplace tend to get worse results than those who display positive emotions such as hope, joy, pride and gratitude.
Letting off steam
Many people believe that feelings of anger can be reduced by venting or ‘letting off steam’ – for example, by punching a cushion or yelling in a room in which they cannot be heard. However, psychologists have found that such supposedly cathartic activities actually tend to increase anger and aggression towards others.
Even thinking about an anger-inducing situation can prolong angry feelings. Instead, psychologists have found that a better tactic for reducing anger is cognitive reappraisal, which involves thinking about events from the perspective of an impartial observer.
If you find yourself becoming angry about a dispute with a colleague, consider that a neutral onlooker is almost certain not to take your side fully in the quarrel. Ask yourself: how would a group of dispassionate colleagues see the situation? Even be open to the possibility that your behaviour may have inadvertently provoked or exacerbated the episode.
Author: Dr Rob Yeung is a chartered psychologist and coach at consulting firm Talentspace
This article was first published in Accounting and Business magazine November 2021