What to Do about Anger in the Workplace?

By Bensimon, Helen Frank | Training & Development, September 1997 | Go to article overview

What to Do about Anger in the Workplace?


Bensimon, Helen Frank, Training & Development


INCIDENTS OF ANGER, AGGRESSION, AND PHYSICAL ATTACKS ARE INCREASING AT AN ALARMING RATE. HERE ARE SOME CAUSES AND WHAT YOU CAN DO TO DIFFUSE WORKPLACE ANGER BEFORE IT ERUPTS IN VIOLENCE.

"Who has not experienced flashes of anger about being treated like a child at work?" asks Seth Allcorn, a management consultant and the author of Anger in the Workplace: Understanding the Causes of Aggression and Violence (Quorum, 1994).

"Who has not become angry or even enraged about a personal or work relationship that has gone awry? Who has not been treated unjustly, or (who does not) expect to be treated unfairly at some time?

"Who has not found people at work to be a source of irritation, threat, and humiliation? Who has not been offended by an insensitive [boss]? Who has not felt intimidated by the power of top management to inflict unilateral decisions on [people that depend on it] for insightful and caring leadership? And who has not wanted to strike out?"

Allcorn says that everyone has had or will have reasons to be angry at work. According to Hendrie Weisniger - a psychologist, an angerologist, and the author of Anger at Work: Learning the Art of Anger Management on the Job (William Morrow, 1995) - most working people experience some annoyance at least 10 times a day.

Workplace issues have caused anger for as long as humans have been working for other humans. Workers have always had cause to be angry, but perhaps never before have there been as much workplace anger and aggression as now.

Allcorn defines anger as an emotion originating from anxiety, which, in turn, arises from feeling frustrated, humiliated, or threatened - feelings that are pervasive in the current workplace. Psychologist Michael Mantell and consultant Steven Albrecht say in their book, Ticking Bombs: Defusing Violence in the Workplace (Irwin, 1994), that the underlying causes of anger and violence in the workplace are the diminishing self-esteem of American workers and the way that stress factors reinforce their low self-esteem.

Workers aren't just passively angry. They are expressing their anger through poor work performance, threats, harassment, acts of sabotage against their employers, and physical attacks - all of which affect morale, productivity, and financial results.

Getting even

Here are some examples of what's happening in the workplace; they are not for the faint-hearted.

A top-performing sales executive leaves puddles of urine throughout his company's headquarters because he believes that his bonus is too low. A supermarket worker slashes two customers in the face with broken glass from a bottle they had dropped and refused to pick up. A bank employee passed over for promotion erases all loan information from his employer's computer system. Such incidents, rarely reported in the media, have become everyday occurrences in U.S. organizations, and they're only the tip of the iceberg.

Unaddressed, unresolved anger can lead to violence, and it's happening with alarming frequency. Homicide is the number 2 cause of death in the workplace. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, a growing number of workers have been killed by co-workers or former co-workers seeking revenge. A 1994 Gallup poll reports that two-thirds of Americans don't feel safe at work. Another Gallup poll reports that one in four employees are angry.

Other studies confirm that when workers get angry, they try to get even. Northwestern National Life Insurance found that in 1993, 2.2 million U.S. workers were attacked physically, 6.3 million were threatened verbally, and 16.1 million were harassed in some way. In 1994, a Crime Victimization survey by the U.S. Department of Justice found that 1 million crimes are committed in the workplace each year. In fact, the true extent of the problem is far more serious than those figures show because organizations, to avoid public embarrassment, often don't report isolated attacks, harassment, and aggression. …

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