BY TOM COX | BIZ TIPS CONTRIBUTOR
When 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:
- Is the anger aimed at a PERSON or at WORK?
- Is the anger expressed responsibly or irresponsibly (i.e. I seem out of control)?
- 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.
Tom Cox is a Beaverton consultant, author and speaker. He coaches CEOs on how to boost performance by building workplace trust.