With career pressure, relationships, and even the future of the country causing stress, there’s likely a lot of people with frazzled nerves in your workplace. And when people are feeling stressed or overwhelmed, it’s easier for anger to take hold.
Many people struggle with anger because it’s an emotion “we’re not supposed to feel,” says Stacy Tye-Williams, an assistant professor of communication studies at Iowa State University. “We’re supposed to tamp that down, but then it builds and builds until we blow our top,” she says.
In most situations, the fallout from flying off the handle at work can range from a damaged reputation to a serious meeting with HR. But anger can also be empowering and provide a catalyst for change. It signals that you care about and have a commitment to your work. “People who constructively express anger have a stronger sense of control than fearful people,” says Loretta Malandro, PhD, CEO of management consulting firm Malandro Consulting Group.
To make your anger work for you the next time someone makes you see red, try this anger action plan instead.
You may be passionate about your work, but remember that workplace dynamics often aren’t personal, says career coach Carlotta Zimmerman. An interaction might feel like a slight, but it’s often more about a decision-making or work process that may have nothing to do with you, she says. “Work is about the roles you play in furthering the mission of the company,” she says.
So do your best to shed the feeling of being slighted personally. If someone blew off a meeting with you, it’s likely because of a busy schedule, rather than not valuing your time. If your boss just dumped a new assignment on you, perhaps they don’t realize you’re already putting in long hours on another project. When you can look at an issue that way, it can be easier to solve, she says.
Malandro says it’s important to understand the difference between “soft” and “hard” emotions. Hard emotions like anger, resentment, and frustration are easier to express because they are more “socially acceptable” than “soft” emotions like sadness, disappointment, or guilt, which can show vulnerability. “As a result, hard emotions are often a decoy for the real issue: an underlying soft emotion that is not being expressed,” she says.
Do a little digging. Are you really angry? Or is the anger a cover for being disappointed or having your feelings hurt? Understanding the real emotion will help you determine how you want the situation to change. For example, if you’re truly angry about how someone spoke to you in a meeting, a simple apology should fix the situation. But if there is an ongoing pattern of abuse that makes you feel hurt and undervalued, that’s a deeper issue that needs to be addressed.
Because expressing anger in the workplace can have fallout, especially for women, the way you frame your response can be important. David Maxfield, organizational change expert and best-selling author of books like Crucial Confrontations: Tools for Resolving Broken Promises, Violated Expectations, and Bad Behavior, recommends the following approach.
Start with your commitment. Position your response as a positive virtue. “This is an issue of honesty and integrity for me, so I’m going to be pretty strong in my language,” for example. You’re telling people in advance why you’re angry, so they can put it in context.
State the facts. Be as specific and fact-based as possible when recounting the reason for your anger. Relay the details of the situation without getting into generalizations. “When I responded to your question about the new project during this morning’s meeting, I felt you were dismissive of my response,” instead of, “You never listen to what I say.”
Share your conclusion. Then, state the conclusion you drew from the fact, which was the trigger for your response, he adds. “I’m beginning to wonder if my input matters here,” or, “This has happened at the last three meetings, so I feel like it’s a pattern,” are clear conclusions stated from your viewpoint. Using “I” language is important, too because it’s not accusatory—it reflects how you feel.
Keep it short. Make your case in 30 seconds or less. “If it goes beyond 30 seconds, you’ve lost it,” Maxfield says.
A structured approach gets your point across in a clear manner, but what happens next is more contextual, Tye-Williams says. Understanding your emotion and its cause will help you decide what you need to ask for or do to prevent anger from boiling over in the future. The fix may be simple, such as talking about a misunderstanding. Or it may require more complex action, such as restructuring your work so that you feel less overwhelmed, finding ways to change the situation making you angry, or reframing the way you view the situation.