- More than half of people experience anger at work.
- Perceptions of disrespect by others, unprofessionalism, and jealousy can all fuel workplace anger.
- Anger can impair job performance and detract from the well-being of the entire workplace.
- Workplace anger can destroy perspective taking or the ability to adopt the vantage point of another.
In a climate that includes public fighting, divisive rhetoric, and international war, anger and aggression can seem like they're everywhere. In these trying times, it may be tempting to let anger take over. But take heed, there’s probably one place you should always keep your anger in check. If you guessed work, then you’re absolutely right.
Various researchers have examined the corrosive nature of anger at work, and their findings are telling.
Characteristics of workplace anger
In a 2017 study published in the International Journal of Conflict Management, British researchers had 187 participants representing management and non-management positions complete anger diaries during a period of 4 weeks. They also measured trait anger and job satisfaction.
The researchers found that more than half of the participants reported incidents of anger occurring during the study period. The researchers uncovered that a disposition to express anger (i.e., trait anger) was associated with the identification of anger-provoking events but not a tendency to act on this anger. In other words, although participants with trait anger may feel angry, they didn’t necessarily show it. In fact, 62% of anger-provoking incidents ended with anger suppression.
Increased satisfaction with co-workers decreased the odds of anger expression, with respondents desiring to maintain harmonious relationships. Participants were even less likely to express anger when they were satisfied with their coworkers in a general sense. However those who are subordinates within their workplace structure were at the highest risk of anger expressed towards them by supervisors or managers. The investigators found that only 15% of participants claimed that they would suppress their anger towards subordinates at work.
The researchers predicted that work characteristics (e.g., role conflict) would predict anger at work. This hypothesis did not pan out, however, with only powerlessness weakly predicting anger instances. Instead, predictors of anger centered on individual perceptions and perceptions of the behavior of others, including disrespectful behavior, unfair treatment, unprofessional behavior, unfair treatment, incompetence, and feelings of humiliation of jealously.
“These predictors argue for a more individualised understanding of workplace anger than that offered by models that are trying to combine both the individual and their work environment as core factors,” stated the authors. “Undoubtedly the work environment will have an influence but it appears to be the individual interpretations of this environment and the perception of the relationships with those within this environment that are driving discrete emotion, in this instance anger.”
Consequence of workplace anger
Problematic anger can lead to major workplace disruption and negatively impact individual performances. Researchers have found that these effects are particularly salient in high-risk occupations, where prolonged and unhealthy anger festers. Examples of these professions include police, military, and firefighters.
Anger can also detract from the health and well-being of the entire organization. In fact, some researchers have found that angry workers are more prone to engage in unethical behavior such as intentional tardiness or theft.
In a 2019 study published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, researchers found that anger at work can cloud judgment and impair perspective taking. Perspective taking is a cognitive process in which a person is able to recognize differences and make inferences about how others view a situation. It allows people to reconcile varied perceptions, backgrounds, and interests.
Of note, the authors found that impaired perspective-taking occurs with both incidental anger and integral anger. Incidental anger is anger that spills over from one context to another. One example could be fighting with a partner and then bringing this anger to work. On the other hand, integral anger is directed toward the source of the anger.
In a Q&A, the researchers further expounded on the detriments of anger. Anger leads to higher levels of arousal, which interferes with the ability to think clearly and deliberately. Angry people collapse in on themselves, become egocentric, and rely on heuristics, or mental short-cuts. They have trouble placing themselves in other people’s shoes.
Anger can lead to what the authors call a “conflict spiral,” where the ability to deal with ensuing events is compromised. Importantly, adopting perspective is an important step in conflict resolution.
Author Maurice E. Schweitzer stressed that to overcome loss of perspective, it’s important to keep a level head. “We’re more likely to think egocentrically, and our tendency to focus in on ourselves becomes exacerbated by the high-arousal emotion of anger or other related emotions. So, we’ve got to check our emotions, be mindful of that, and recognize that we’re going to be more likely to adopt an egocentric perspective.”
Adler, A. B., & Forbes, D. (2021). Anger at work: Prevention, intervention, and treatment in high-risk occupations. American Psychological Association.
Anger at work: How negative emotions cloud judgment. Knowledge at Wharton. (n.d.). Retrieved May 12, 2022, from https://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/impacts-of-being-angry-at-w…
Booth, J., Ireland, J. L., Mann, S., Eslea, M., & Holyoak, L. (2017). Anger expression and suppression at work: Causes, characteristics and predictors. International Journal of Conflict Management, 28(3), 368–382. https://doi.org/10.1108/ijcma-06-2016-0044
Motro, D., Ordonez, L., Pittarello, A., & Welsh, D. (2014). Investigating the effects of anger and guilt on unethical behavior: A dual-process approach. PsycEXTRA Dataset. https://doi.org/10.1037/e573552014-024
Yip, J. A., & Schweitzer, M. E. (2019). Losing your temper and your perspective: Anger reduces perspective-taking. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 150, 28–45. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.obhdp.2018.07.003