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The Surprising Upsides To Getting Angry At Work

No, you shouldn’t lash out at your coworkers. But there are productive ways to channel your feelings of frustration, rather than fight them.

The Surprising Upsides To Getting Angry At Work
[Photo: Flickr user Isengardt]

Being angry isn’t a pleasant feeling, and expressing how mad you are in the office is usually a bad idea. Not only does it lead to emotional decision-making and other risky behaviors, it harms your ability to get along with people. But the fact remains that anger is a universal human emotion, meaning it’s served an adaptive purpose for human beings over the course of our evolution–or why else would that emotion have stuck with us for so long?

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While some have argued that humans as a species have steadily become less violent overall in modern times, there’s little reason to believe there will ever come a point when we’ll ever cease feeling angry now and then. So the question is how best to channel that emotion in ways that actually help us–especially at work.

It Fuels Nonverbal Cues That Can Preempt Confrontation

As Charles Darwin famously noted in a seminal essay, the essence of emotions is interpersonal–they’re meant to help us communicate our intentions to others. In fact, you can think of emotions as a predecessor of language; even today; much of what we communicate comes through nonverbal channels like facial expressions, body posture, personal space, and so on. While this may sound obvious, it suggests something that’s actually pretty counterintuitive: emotions are much more other-oriented than self-centered or introspective–even though you’re the one experiencing a certain emotion at a certain time. In other words, you feel something in order to guide your relationships with others.

In the case of anger, the point is to signal combative or retaliatory intentions to others, mostly to prevent them from annoying you in the future. This doesn’t mean you should lash out at your coworkers and intimidate them into behaving the way you want them to–far from it. Indeed, since anger is most powerful when it’s not manifested, the better course of action is to channel your frustration into subtler, nonverbal queues. You don’t have to sulk and cross your arms passive aggressively for others to get the sense that maybe now isn’t the best time to swing by your desk and tell that joke. Something as simple as putting on your headphones and maybe wrinkling your brow can do the trick.

At any rate, when others are able to predict what you might feel if they do something, they’ll likely hold off doing it in the first place. Ironically, then, anger–properly channeled into nonverbal signals–can play a critical role in keeping relationships peaceful.

It Can Help You Rally Your Team

Like it or not, we all use anger to intimidate–that’s one of its key functions–but this works better for some people than others. More powerful people are typically given greater license to express anger than are less powerful ones. So if you’ve acquired a degree of status over others, you can channel your anger into the way you deliver their marching orders. Whereas if you’re angry toward someone more senior to you, you’ll probably just feel frustrated and may even try to unload those feelings onto someone less powerful than you who doesn’t deserve it.

This difference is key. It means you shouldn’t come down on your team members with fire and fury when it’s your own supervisor you’re really mad at. But it does mean that expressing anger at a situation–“I’m so frustrated our client pitch fell flat, aren’t you?!”–can be an effective rallying mechanism when you’re the one in charge. And since anger allows you to showcase your status, it can give some added authority to the idea you’re expressing.

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Psychologists also know that in high-status individuals, anger offers an important moral justification for behaving in non-altruistic ways–in other words, it lets the powerful feel entitled rather than guilty for their bad behavior (even selfish people prefer to have a clear conscience). So while this doesn’t license unethical business practices, it can add fuel to your team’s fire for going after the competition. After all, your company needs to act in its own self-interest in order to get an edge in the market over your competitors, who are all surely doing the same. Feeling a little angry and entitled can take you a long way in that race.

It Can Boost Your Performance

So it’s no surprise that in measured doses, anger can prove a useful performance catalyst. Of course, this requires self-control and emotional intelligence. If you can tap into the driving and energizing force that anger provides, you may be able to produce better outcomes than you would trying to suppress those feelings. But the key is to feel a moderate amount of anger (or what psychologists call “arousal”–the mental stress or pressure that motivates people to act) that leads to higher performance than just being pumped with adrenaline on the one hand or being too bored, calm, and cool-headed on the other.

Likewise, anger can help you become more aware of your values and motives, highlighting your inner compass and system of beliefs so you can realize how much you actually want something–and why. Conversely, the Zen-like ability to eliminate both anger and its sources will also extinguish any passion or desire to achieve. No wonder, then, that exceptional achievers–entrepreneurs, athletes, artists, and even scientists–are often motivated by an intense sense of dissatisfaction, frustration at their past performance, and even anger. They’re rebels with a cause, always work hard to create change.

With this in mind, maybe we should learn to tolerate anger more in others. Especially around the office, we generally prefer people who are calm, agreeable, and nonreactive–they’re more rewarding to deal with and non-confrontational. But since there may be a price we pay for some of those “prosocial” qualities, we might want to broaden the definition of “anger management” to include not just tamping it down but channeling it more productively.