Monday, 30 May 2011

What's the best way to deal with flare-ups of anger at work?

Have you ever had someone flare up at you at work, or witnessed a colleague slam down the phone and reel off expletives? Traditionally, expressing anger in the workplace is seen as unprofessional, as sheer aggression. A model developed by Deanna Geddes takes a different tack, and receives empirical backing in a recent study in the journal Human Relations.

Geddes and co-author Lisa Stickney point out than rather than being uniformly toxic, anger is often provoked by a sense of mistreatment, and can point to problems in the workplace. Geddes has suggested a Dual-Threshold Model of workplace anger where the organisation can be harmed in two ways: when expressions of anger are so extreme and deviant that they break an 'impropriety threshold', or when anger fails to ever reach the expression threshold, meaning the feelings are unvoiced and the underlying issues fester. When the thresholds are too tightly stacked together in an organisation, any expression of anger is automatically considered deviant and muted by the threat of punishment.

In the present study, 194 participants completed a questionnaire that asked them to reflect and comment on an occasion when someone at work went 'too far' in expressing their anger. As well as the type of expression – verbal outburst, inappropriate communication or a physical act, participants recorded how the event was responded to, both formally and informally, and how the situation changed following the event. This last feature was critical: did the handling of the situation lead to resolution of the root problem or leave it hanging?

The authors predicted that outcomes should be most positive when the responses to anger are more supportive, rather than punitive, and indeed neither management sanctions (such as a written warning) nor coworker sanctions (distancing themselves from the individual or responding in kind) were more effective than doing nothing at all. Conversely, speaking to the individual and understanding their situation led to more situations taking a turn for the better.

It's worth noting that when the original event involved some physical acting-out of the anger, the underlying issue tended to be resolved better. This is surprising, seeing as physical expression often triggered sanctions due to their perceived high deviance. The authors speculate that the pure visibility of physical actions make it impossible to duck that there is an issue: sanctions may be applied, but the conversations that accompany it go deep enough to gain a full understanding and act.

Geddes and Stickney suggest that “anger expressions may be better viewed – conceptually and practically – as focused forms of employee dissent or voice by which the employee confronts inefficient, unjust, and/or offensive workplace situations.“ So when we witness anger, we should consider whether there may be just cause for the reaction. We should also be cautious of zero-tolerance approaches that automatically apply sanctions; if an employee already feels wronged, introducing further punishment can compound the strain on their relationship with coworkers and the organisation. Instead, we should train ourselves out of treating all charged expressions as aggressive behaviour. Anger can be a gift, if we choose to see it that way.
Geddes, D., & Stickney, L. (2010). The trouble with sanctions: Organizational responses to deviant anger displays at work Human Relations, 64 (2), 201-230 DOI: 10.1177/0018726710375482

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