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When is anger OK in the workplace?

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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

BY This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it | BIZ TIPS CONTRIBUTOR

03.20.13 Blog AngerWhen is anger okay in the work place?


Anger is so seldom acceptable — it’s so rare for it to be non-harmful — that I start by saying it’s never okay.

Contrary to my counterpart at NURA, who suggests anger can “help” a team, I disagree.

Expressing or ‘acting out’ anger is different from feeling anger. I can feel anger without having to share it. And I can express my anger in a responsible way that is not denial, is not ‘stuffing’ it, and also doesn’t make someone else wrong or scared.

Anger about the work is different from anger about a person. I can be angry about the work (“we did it wrong”) and my trusted/trusting co-worker might sympathize, as she is not threatened. When I shift to anger aimed at a person (“you did it wrong and are therefore bad”) then it is much likelier to be received as threatening. That harms teamwork.

All anger comes from the fight-or-flight instinct — when feeling anger, the active part of the brain is the amygdala.

When my feeling of anger becomes a shared expression of our group’s frustration, it can perhaps sometimes lead to increased bonding. Usually because my teammates’ amygdalas are NOT engaged. Instead, their higher emotions are active in the limbic system (the seat of love, trust, etc.) I may show anger, and they might feel neither fear nor anger in response — they might perhaps feel sympathy, or perhaps feel that their own frustrations are shared by another (thus firing their mirror neurons and increasing the feeling of fellowship toward me). Yes, that can be good for the team.


When my feeling of anger becomes a threatening expression of poorly controlled anger, it can spark defensiveness and harm team trust and team functioning.

The key variables are:

  1. Is the anger aimed at a PERSON or at WORK?
  2. Is the anger expressed responsibly or irresponsibly (i.e. I seem out of control)?
  3. Is there already a high level of trust between us?

If there is high trust, and I’m angry about work product (not aimed accusingly at another individual), and I’m sharing my feeling in a responsible way, then we’re potentially okay.

If any of the three variables are off, I’m going to harm the team dynamic, nearly every time.

For more on this, see the books “Trust is Everything” and “Becoming a Conflict Competent Leader“.

Tom Cox is a Beaverton consultant, author and speaker. He coaches CEOs on how to boost performance by building workplace trust.



0 #1 General Political ActivistGuest 2013-03-20 18:55:09
Violence in the workplace, whether by the employer, or the employee, is never acceptable, whatsoever. Violence costs results in lost time on the job, injury or wrongful death claims, bankruptcy, and a myriad of social costs.

However, there is a right way to go about expressing workplace grievances, and it usually starts with a healthy open door, two way communication system of management policy. Conflict will happen, to be sure. How I deal with it, is another matter, entirely.

Therefore, I should be able to solve my immediate problems by discussing with coworkers first, management second, and if that fails, then with the appropriate agency responsible for dealing with these issues. It is not a perfect process, and there is always room for improvement in this arena.
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0 #2 RE: When is anger OK in the workplace?Guest 2013-03-20 23:16:57
Anger is a feeling not a behavior, only we each know what we feel. Employers have no right or privilege to hold anyone accountable for feelings or thoughts, only behavior. It is not helpful for employees or employers to keep using a term that describes something that is known to only ourselves. Specifically what behaviors are unacceptable and under what circumstances may prove to be helpful, because "angry" behavior means something very different for the mousy and squeamish than for more assertive and-dare I even say-more impatient people.
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0 #3 Be Cause Business - PresidentGuest 2013-03-23 02:53:51
Interesting article with good argumentation for how anger in a work place could be beneficial.
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