Five pointers about understanding and managing anger
Anger was useful for our ancestors thousands or even hundreds of years ago because it got them physically and mentally ready to respond to injustice – possibly through physical violence. But in the modern workplace, the expression of anger can often be inappropriate or even harmful to careers.
Understand anger’s effects on decision making
Studies by psychologists have found that people experiencing anger tend to become more optimistic about future events – they perceive the risks associated with action as lower than when they are feeling calm. The optimism-inducing effect of anger likely had an evolutionary purpose in that it helped our ancestors to believe that acting aggressively would result in a positive outcome. For example, it might cause an offending person to back down and make amends.
In the workplace, though, feeling angry may lead us to take bigger risks than when we are feeling calm. For instance, in weighing up the costs and benefits of a course of action, the feeling of anger may lead you to overestimate the benefits and not to spend enough time examining the costs.
The effects of anger on our decision making also carries over from one situation to the next. For example, if a stranger on your way to work spills coffee on you, your anger could affect your judgment even hours later on a wholly unrelated task such as weighing up the merits of a business investment.
Being aware of anger’s effects on judgment making can help you to avoid taking inappropriate risks. If you identify that you are feeling angry – or even mildly irritated – you can choose to defer making important decisions until you are feeling calm again.
Appreciate how anger affects negotiations
Negotiators sometimes act angrily during discussions – demonstrating either real or feigned anger because they believe that the tactical display of anger will benefit them. However, research tells us that displays of anger actually have either mixed or negative effects.
An investigation led by Lu Wang at the University of New South Wales in Australia found that negotiators who expressed their anger during negotiations did tend to obtain concessions from the other party. However, the other party was then significantly more likely to engage in covert retaliation. In other words, displaying your anger may help you to win something in the face-to-face negotiation. But that same show of anger may cause the other person to find less obvious ways to seek revenge.
Perhaps this finding explains why some negotiators continue to believe that pretending to be angry helps them. They see that they gain some concessions during discussions. However, they likely do not see that the other party may later seek payback – for example, by spreading damaging gossip, putting less effort into implementing the negotiated agreement, or engaging in other secretive ways to retaliate.
So, be careful about showing your anger – or even irritation – during negotiations. It probably will not benefit you in the end.
Avoid venting your anger
One popular method for feeling less angry is called venting or ‘blowing off steam’. The idea is that, if you feel angry, you should punch a cushion or find a place where you can scream out loud without being heard. Some supposed experts claim that venting or expressing anger allows you to get it out of your body so that you can recover more quickly.
Unfortunately, psychologists have found that venting does not work. In fact, research by psychologist Brad Bushman at Iowa State University has found that venting typically increases anger and feelings of aggression.
In other words, allowing yourself to express your anger may simply fuel and prolong your anger. So, when you are tempted to hit something, throw an object across the room, scream out loud, or shout obscenities, remember that these are actually counterproductive tactics that may make you feel worse rather than better.
Seek an alternative viewpoint
Thankfully, psychologists have found several techniques that do reduce anger. One such method is called reappraisal, which involves thinking about an anger-inducing event from a different perspective.
For example, imagine that a fellow employee called John said something to you that angered you. To reappraise, try to imagine how an impartial observer might see the dispute. What would your line manager say about the situation? Or, consider how some other neutral party – for example, someone from the human resources department or a judge in a court of law – might see the situation. It’s likely that these other individuals would take a more dispassionate view – they might even say that you had said or done something that might have contributed to the situation.
To feel less angry then, don’t just relive an anger-inducing situation by thinking about it over and over again. Reappraise it by thinking about it from a different perspective such as from the viewpoint of an impartial observer.
Self-distance from the situation
Another successful technique for reducing anger is called self-distancing, according to experts led by Dominik Mischkowski at the Ohio State University. This involves looking at an anger-inducing event within your mind’s eye, but imagining that you are watching it from a physical distance.
For example, if you are replaying a situation in your mind, imagine that it is happening on a stage in a theatre. Then imagine yourself moving towards the back of the theatre so that the anger-inducing situation gets further and further away – and therefore smaller and smaller in your visual field.
Or, imagine that the anger-inducing event is being played on a TV screen. Then imagine backing away from the TV. The experts led by Dominik Mischkowski suggest doing so until ‘you can now watch the event unfold from a distance’. When you have created a mental distance between yourself and the scene, you can ‘watch the situation unfold as if it were happening to the distant you all over again’.
I think that self-distancing is like another form of reappraisal. While reappraisal involves seeing a difficult situation from the viewpoint of an impartial observer, self-distancing involves seeing the situation from the viewpoint of being physically further away from it. In essence, both self-distancing and reappraisal allow you to take control rather than merely allowing an anger-inducing scene to play out of its own accord.
Author: Dr Rob Yeung is a chartered psychologist and coach at consulting firm Talentspace