City: Count to 10 and get your anger under control

Meg Carter
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:19

Angry outbursts at work can shatter a pleasant, productive atmosphere. Whether it's you or your boss who can't control a temper, everyone suffers - and stress levels rise all round. As Meg Carter reports, learning to channel your emotions constructively is becoming an important work skill.

Remember Basil Fawlty? How we all laughed when things went wrong and he had one of his characteristic explosive rants. But working in an environment punctuated by outbursts of anger is no joke - especially if the volatile temper is yours. With "office rage" on the increase, a growing number of us are struggling to cope with its consequences.

After months of what he describes as "verbal abuse" from his boss, Derek, a middle manager for a London-based computer software company, resigned last month after three years at the company. "It was an awful decision as Christmas was just weeks off, but something inside me snapped: I just couldn't take it any more," he explains.

Derek's boss had a reputation for having a temper and regularly vented his rage on those lower down the pecking order. "I didn't think I had a particularly bad relationship with him as such," Derek says. "It was his inability to control his temper that became unbearable. He regularly lost control - shouting, slamming doors and becoming aggressive towards whoever was the easiest target. As my job involved working closely with him, this invariably meant me."

Embarrassed about approaching his boss's superiors, Derek waited until he took part in a training course nine months ago to voice his concerns, although he did not identify his boss by name. "I felt I wouldn't be taken seriously," he admits. "There's also the feeling that the company will automatically side with your boss. Or else think that it's you who are really to blame."

In fact, a number of other people in his department had also expressed fears about their boss's behaviour. So, when Derek handed in his notice after a particularly violent outburst, the personnel director offered to move him sideways into another department. His boss, meanwhile, was proscribed an aggression management course by his superiors.

Derek was happy to accept this compromise, with the guarantee of equal status and equal pay in his new job. But he admits he is not completely satisfied with the outcome. "It shouldn't take someone having to quit their job to get a problem like this recognised," he says.

More companies should acknowledge "office rage" as a cause for concern, says Alan Margolis, a management consultant whose company, Hampstead Training Consultants, runs courses for the Institute of Personnel Development. "Too few recognise that a happy workforce is a more productive workforce. Offices driven by fear of angry outbursts or bullying are not a productive working environment. It is in a company's interest to recognise this and do something about it."

Derek's is not an isolated case. The Nineties workforce faces unprecedented pressures from a changing work environment, Mr Margolis explains. Downsizing and technological change have generated job insecurity, longer working hours and a feeling of impotency among workers who complain they no longer feel in control of their destiny - an important cause of stress.

"There's more reasons to be angry than ever before," he says. "There's pressure and then there's stress. Anger is an indication you've crossed from one into the other and that you're not coping. People either exhibit the symptoms of this through angry outbursts, or experience it by being regularly exposed to someone angry close at hand."

Learning to control anger and channel strong emotions to positive effect is becoming an important work skill. Angry outbursts fall into a number of categories. There is the instantaneous eruption of frustration when your computer doesn't work. There is the sometimes necessary expression of displeasure at a subordinate's work done poorly. And, at the top end of the scale, there is the pathological outburst that is often uncontrollable and seemingly random.

The struggle, of course, is to keep anger in check - a challenge some Japanese companies have risen to by encouraging staff to attack effigies of their managers with baseball bats to vent rage. "The idea is that they get rid of their frustration and hostility in private before going into a meeting with their superiors calm and focused," Mr Margolis says. "And it's not as daft as it sounds."

The first step towards combating anger in the workplace is identifying its cause, experts agree. Either it is a reaction to something that has happened at home spilling over into work, or its origins are job-related. "Typically, it's triggered by something - or someone - which has frustrated an active goal," says Dr Rob Briner, a lecturer in organisational psychology at Birkbeck College, London. "It can, of course, depend on the nature of you job. City traders have dozens of opportunities a day to succeed or fail. Someone working in a shop may have a smoother work pattern but can suffer boredom or depression as a result."

Occupation can also dictate the manifestation of anger. "Some work environments encourage a confrontational atmosphere to force staff to compete. Others professions, for example nursing, require people to suppress their emotions," he says.

Confronting feelings of powerlessness and frustration are an important step, believes occupational psychologist Professor Cary Cooper. "Anger is only good if it can be directed at the source of the problem in a constructive way," he explains. "Don't take your frustration with your superiors out on your subordinates. Give you boss calmly measured feedback. The key to controlling it is to understand what you are feeling, and why."

Another useful rule: never act in haste when something at work has made you angry. "Always pause and count to 10," Dr Briner advises. "It's easy to say something you will later come to regret."

Where a demonstration of displeasure is required, maintain a focus on how your behaviour appears to onlookers. "A fine line divides controlled anger which demonstrates displeasure but enforces your position in the office, from behaviour which can only be seen as ridiculous," he says.

Mr Margolis advises: "Ask yourself whether it is in your best interests to allow another person to be in the position of altering how you feel. You can't alter how other people are, but you can alter how you respond to them."

And for those at the receiving end? There's strength in numbers, it seems. Professor Cooper advises the beleaguered to seek support from others in the same situation to devise a strategy. It can also help if a group of you express concern about a colleague's behaviour to one of his or her contemporaries rather than the boss - a move likely to inflame an already sensitive situation.

But above all, do something. Suffering in silence is likely only to exacerbate the problem.

How not to become a Basil Fawlty

Any outburst of emotion at work should be regarded as a warning signal and should be considered carefully, experts advise. You can't learn to control emotional excess if you don't try to understand why you are feeling that way.

Ask why you are angry and consider how to deal with the cause. In many cases, the source of anger can lie in feelings of conflict with another person at work. Acknowledge this if that is the case, and coolly consider how to move on from rather than dwell on the situation.

Resist the temptation to explode at work - it might feel better out than in, but invariably you will end up directing your anger at the innocent, either at home or in the office. If your boss is the cause of a problem, don't blame your secretary because she or he is a "softer" target.

Where possible, approach a trusted colleague to discuss feelings of frustration contributing to your anger and use their feedback to identify causes and formulate a cure. The best remedy is to devise a way of channelling your anger constructively. For example, construct a plan - doing something feels better than festering.

Above all, try to ensure you are not overly work-focused. People who are more work-absorbed tend to get angry at work far more quickly than those who cultivate a more balanced perspective on life.

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