(Article previously appeared in The Washington Post)
So what should you do when work makes you angry?
Organizational behavior specialists, emotional intelligence experts, workplace psychologists and even one company’s “Chief People Officer” weighed in to Inspired Life on how you can deal with anger in a way that can actually improve your workplace:
1. Know that anger can be normal—and good
“Anger is not all bad,” explains Sigal Barsade, Professor of Management at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.
“It’s actually a useful emotion in its signaling value in that something is wrong and needs to be fixed.”
David W. Ballard from the Director for Organizational Excellence at the American Psychological Association agrees.
“If you can translate that emotion into constructive action, then it can be useful. Some conflict and anger in teams can actually improve the functioning of the workplace,” he says.
Experts also note that organizations that allow people to express anger, and then work to resolve the core issues behind it, can often prove to be stronger than organizations that don’t allow difficult feelings to be aired.
So where do you start with anger? “Name it to tame it,” suggests Joshua Freedman, CEO of an emotional intelligence network that teaches how to positively use emotions. “Recognize the feeling — your palms are hot, your neck is getting tense, you’re clenching your teeth: Hey! It’s anger.”
[Related: Hate your job? Try these four strategies before you call it quits]
2. Anger can also hide the real problem
“Anger is an emotion that covers up a lot of other emotions,” says Emotional Intelligence expert and author Harvey Deutschendorf. “It can replace a sense of disappointment or sadness. . . .When we dig down into the anger, there are other things that are usually down there,” he adds.
“At work, it’s often a feeling of unfairness. Somebody else taking credit for your work. Someone else receiving more attention. Someone else being favored over you, promoted over you, or not receiving the credit that we’re due,” he notes.
Can you feel the rage building yet?
In that sense, explains Deutschendorf, anger is defensive. “It’s our way of fighting back against feeling helpless.”
Thus, one way to cope with the visceral feeling of anger at work is to contemplate the deeper feelings that anger may be clouding over. Perhaps in recognizing your own sense of vulnerability at work (feelings of inadequacy, resentment or fear), you’ll find a path out of the rage. At the very least, you’ll be more honest with yourself about why you’re feeling so mad.
3. Realize that anger has a physical component
The clenched jaw. The quickened heart rate. The raised eyebrows. The tensed shoulders. Experts note that anger has many physical manifestations, and that fact presents both a challenge and opportunity.
The challenge? Not only do you experience anger in your head, you feel it in your body. Being upset literally feels bad. And if you’re not careful, you can emotionally respond, in ways that can negatively impact your career, to the involuntary response of your body to a work problem.
The opportunity: By being aware of your physical response and taming the sensations, you can transport yourself to a calmer, more rational place. Many experts encourage deep breathing during feelings of workplace anger to slow your heart rate, allowing your logical brain to take over before you respond with rage. Others suggest physical activity, meditation, or mental exercises such as reminding yourself of some positive attributes of a person you’re feeling frustrating with—or invoking feelings of compassion. (Go on, we’re sure you can think of something.)
On that note, Freedman adds: “Appreciation is the anti-stress feeling. Even if there are 101 things terrible about this person or situation, can you find three things you appreciate, value, or respect? Can you find five things? When you force yourself to think about those, your stress will go down automatically.”
4. You can deal with anger by mentally prepping for predictably tough situations
Perhaps there’s a coworker that you consistently have problems with, or a project that is causing you agitation. Before a planned meeting or conversation, try reminding yourself that you often feel frustrated, pre-empting those feelings of anger, suggests Barsade.
“If you know that it’s likely that you’re going to walk into a [frustrating] situation, being aware and ready for it ahead of time is very helpful. It can save you.”
For example: If you have a coworker who tends to be condescending and it reliably sets you off, before you go into the meeting remind yourself, ‘This is their issue, their own need for esteem.’ You analyze the situation and remind yourself by saying, “I know this is something that sets me off.”
Preparing in this way for difficult people helps you handle them better.
5. Coping with anger doesn’t mean you need to accept injustice
Laura Hamill is Chief People Officer at Limeade, an organization that inspires people and companies to improve their health, well-being and performance, and she says that organizations have a big role in helping employees through any kind of anger.
“When somebody is angry it’s usually that they wonder, 1. ‘Do I have a voice?’ and 2. ‘Do I feel valued?’” If the answer to those questions is ‘No,’ then workplaces need to address the culture that makes individual employees feel powerless.
In some of these cases, you need to elevate an injustice to HR. This is nothing to be ashamed of—in fact, bringing institutional attention to a problem may help future employees have access to greater resources or awareness of a challenge. Be the change you wish to see in HR.
6. Be brave
“The person in any kind of interaction that remains calm and doesn’t get angry is the winner,” Deutschendorf explains.
If you are feeling consistently angry with a coworker or boss, you may need to gather your courage to address the problem. Talking to a boss about why it makes you mad when he emails you at 10 p.m. at night, causing work-induced bedtime turmoil, might feel like a stressful conversation, but if you approach it calmly you may wind up with a constructive solution that improves your life.
“The reason anger does happen is because it festers for so long,” notes Hamill. “People are so bothered by something but they never tell the person that they’re bothered by it. They never make it clear.”
Being honest and calm in making your voice heard, Hamill says, is “really is about courage.”
“Even if it doesn’t turn out the way you want, at least you can feel like you have some integrity and took action to try to make it better.”
Now doesn’t that feel better?