7 Techniques for Managing Anger at Work
What gets you riled up at work?
I conducted an informal survey awhile back on this topic. I’ll list some of the most common answers below, but (warning!) make sure to take deep breaths as you read or you might blow a gasket. I’m willing to bet at least one scenario on the list will feel painfully familiar:
- Double standards
- Lack of appreciation when you go above and beyond
- Disrespectful words and behavior from clients or coworkers
- Being left out of the loop
- Laziness or ineptitude that creates more work for you
- Lack of fairness and equality
- Hurtful politicking, rumors, and gossip
- Arrogance from egomaniacs and know-it-alls
- Someone else getting credit for your work or ideas
These situations (or maybe it’s the people?) can create epic emotional responses. What are you supposed to do when it feels like a volcano of rage is about to erupt?
Somehow, we developed the idea that being professional means that the workplace should be an emotion-free zone. No feelings allowed! Unless, of course, they’re positive ones. “Good” feelings—happiness, excitement, confidence, optimism, satisfaction—are welcome and encouraged. Every day is Bring Your Positivity to Work Day!
Yet real life is messy, primarily because it is replete with imperfect human beings. Like me. And you. You bump into another’s imperfections (or your own) and it hurts. And makes you mad! So then what? Do you stuff your anger and pretend you’re fine when you’re not? Let it spew out onto everyone around you? Both of those extremes eventually create toxic work environments. In the first scenario, you have a dishonest culture of forced positivity where everyone walks around on eggshells and difficult, yet necessary, conversations never happen; in the second, you have adult-sized temper tantrums and, potentially, verbal or emotional abuse. Both are terrible for productivity and even worse for morale.
Anger is real and it has its place. Even at work. As author Harriet Lerner writes, “Anger is a signal, and one worth listening to.” The key is to control it rather than letting it control you—to use its energy to provide the motivation and courage you need to have those difficult conversations. Here are seven tips for managing your anger at work in order to protect your mental health, improve your workplace culture, and address conflicts and inappropriate behavior effectively.
1. Acknowledge your capability.
Before you get to your next rage-producing interaction, be honest with yourself about your ability to control your reactions. You have more power than you likely give yourself credit for. If you are a stuffer, you are capable of speaking up. If you are an exploder, you are capable of calming down. Given the right motivation you can—and probably have—done both.
In either case, your habitual reaction comes from the belief that it benefits you. And, well, it does! Figure out what the payoff is for keeping silent or erupting. There is one! Or several. Once you become consciously aware of what you “get” from your reaction—peace, attention, distraction, a sense of power, safety, whatever—you can more easily change your behavior.
2. Utilize your body.
Make your body your ally in overcoming strong emotional responses. Tune in to your senses, rather than being consumed by angry thoughts. Taking in all that data from your senses puts your anger in context: it’s not the only thing you’re experiencing. Ever.
And any time you get out of your head and into your body, your muscles release tension and your mind quiets down. It is almost impossible to feel furious when your physical body is relaxed. (Try it!) Unclench your fists, drop your shoulders, unscrunch your face, and breathe. Move, if possible, to a new location so you can literally leave the rage behind you. Take a drink of water to cool and cleanse your mind and body. Use your body to manage your thoughts and emotions.
3. Label the feeling.
Candidly admitting that you’re angry, even just to yourself, goes a long way toward deescalating the emotion. Emotions demand expression. Expressing the anger in the privacy of your own brain helps take care of that need.
The more specific you can be, the better. Are you angry? Or are you enraged? Frustrated? Disgusted? Envious? Exasperated? Humiliated? Bitter? Furious? Putting a label on your reaction requires the use of your prefrontal cortex, the rational part of your brain, which helps move you out of the reactionary, instinctual, fight-or-flight part of your brain. You gain a bit of distance from the feeling and can better manage it.
4. Figure out the violation.
Anger flares up when your rules are broken. Some “should” that you might not even be consciously aware of has been tromped on.
My boss should stand up for me!
I should get credit for my work!
They should be more respectful!
He shouldn’t need to be reminded to do his job!
She should show up on time!
Get curious. What’s the real issue? Once you drill down to the “rule” than was broken, you gain clarity on how to proceed. Often you discover that your rules are stupid. Or unrealistic. Or have never been communicated. In other cases, you may determine it’s time to stand up and fight for a deeply held value or belief. Know what you’re angry about before you respond.
You can count to ten if you like. If you spend those ten seconds focusing on all your reasons for being seriously pissed off, it probably won’t help. There’s no magic in counting to ten. The point is to wait until your physiological response has simmered down a bit before responding. You cannot express yourself effectively when you’re visibly upset. You’re in fight-or-flight, so the rational part of your brain goes offline. You literally can’t think straight and it undermines your credibility. Wait to get your brain back before your state your case.
6. Own your reactions.
Forget who started it. Forget blame. Forget figuring out who’s right. In the heat of the moment, that doesn’t help. You can be right and still get hurt, as I tell my kids when we cross the street: Just because you have the right of way doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to walk out in front of a bus. Who wins? The bus.
Instead of arguing, share your thoughts and emotions. State how the other person’s behavior affected you. Demonstrate how things look from your perspective. Those are real and no one can argue with your experience. Be honest, open, and straightforward without blaming.
7. Say what you need.
You can’t change anyone’s behavior or beliefs. You can, however, state your requests and your boundaries. Stand up for yourself, clearly express your limits without complaining, and act on your decisions. When you take responsibility for your emotions, needs, and actions, you make it easier for others to accept them without defensiveness or escalating anger.
Venting is not communication. It’s discharge of pent up emotions, and sometimes that can be really helpful! Nonetheless, emotional outbursts, especially when you’re venting to a friend or coworker who isn’t directly involved, are not the same as honestly expressing yourself and working toward resolution.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with feeling angry. Anger is a helpful emotion that reveals your values, stimulates your sense of justice, and can provide energy, motivation, and courage. When channeled appropriately, it can give you exactly what you need to fight for what matters and create lasting change—in the workplace, in your personal life, and for that matter, in the world.
Change your communication, change your life.