HR Management & Compliance

Anger at Work: Causes and Cures

Whether caused by actual abuse or simple annoyance, anger saps your workers’ energy and hampers their productivity. Here are reasons it happens and ways to curtail it.

If you’re like most people, you’re going to spend more than 40 years of your life working. Wouldn’t it be nice if it was always a pleasant experience, shared with pleasant people?

Unfortunately, it sometimes isn’t, and there’s a growing awareness of that fact.

Spurred by pressure to achieve ever-better bottom lines in a world of ever-increasing competition, anger at work is rising. It can be caused by simple annoyance or actual harassment or abuse. But whatever its causes, the results are negative … teamwork disturbed, turnover increased, productivity rates down the tubes.

Fortunately, several experts have been looking at the issue of workplace anger, what causes it, and what can be done about it. Here’s some of their thinking:

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The first-level cause of anger, annoyance, was dissected by Michele Brooke on the web- site, Brooke listed the annoying habits of co-workers, which fell into the categories below. See if you recognize anything your co-workers … or you … do that could be making others angry.

–Communications annoyances. High on the list were speaking overly loud during phone calls, listening to voicemail messages on speakerphone (presumably at full volume), and having personal arguments in full hearing of the whole floor. Eavesdropping over cubicle walls or stubbornly standing in a doorway while others are on a call also ranked high. So did programming your cell phone with some cloying melody and then letting it ring and ring. “After the 15th rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” says Brooke, your colleagues will … chuck your little neon Nokia right out the window.”

–Personal violations. These range from eating smelly food at your desk and not dealing with your breath, to clipping fingernails at work, to simply standing within the personal “space barrier” of others during a conversation. “If you can feel their breath,” she advises, “take a step back.”

–Work practices annoyances. Into this category fall discourtesies like deleting the print jobs of others so yours goes to the head of the queue, grabbing the last cup of coffee without making more, and swearing at a balky computer. Constantly whining about work also annoys many, says Brooke. And it can brand you as disposable during a layoff since you were “unhappy anyway.”

“The No A–h— Rule”

Taking it up a level on the anger-causing scale is Stanford professor and author Robert I. Sutton. His book (sensitive ears may wish to skip this sentence) is titled The No Asshole Rule – Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t.

Sutton defines his focus character as someone who regularly practices “bullying, interpersonal aggression, emotional abuse,” and “petty tyranny,” especially against those lower on the company totem pole. The damage such individuals cause is substantial because “nasty interactions have five times the punch of positive ones,” Sutton says.

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The solution to the “AH. problem” is not as simple as tossing a cell phone out a window, but Sutton points to companies, such as Southwest Airlines and Men’s Wearhouse, that have found it. “Civilized workplaces do exist,” he writes, “where pervasive contempt can be replaced with mutual respect … when a team or organization is managed right.”

Managed wrong, such situations can escalate to frightening proportions, including physical violence. We’ll talk more about that … and highlight a BLR special audio conference on the subject … in the next Daily Advisor.