Science explains that anger at work has a bright side. Here’s how to manage it

By Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

May 16, 2022
Science explains that anger at work has a bright side. Here’s how to manage it

Most of us prefer to avoid feeling angry at work (and, really, in any other area of life, such as relationships, family, sports, and even social media). However, this doesn’t help us in achieving that goal. In fact, unless you are not human, you will find that there are many situations that can trigger your anger, including some that seem absolutely justified: unfairness, provocation, the realization that people are trying to take advantage of us; not to mention incompetent drivers, bad bosses, annoying work colleagues, and, of course, a slow internet connection.

Psychologists have studied anger for over 100 years. Like any universal behavior, it is clear that there must be at least some rational reasons, and even justifications, for anger to be so pervasive and dominant in every society, and across all walks of life. From an evolutionary perspective, anger is best understood as a neuro-cognitive adaptation “designed to bargain for better treatment.” In other words, anger is a demand for help, change, and action.

More specifically, research has highlighted three important functions of anger:

Showing status or strength to others: Anger is both a common defense tactic, as well as a universal offense strategy. We get angry to show power, status, and to intimidate, even if this also shows we are unable to manage a situation well. In many ways, anger is an attempt to gain control when we have lost self-control. 

Venting, or letting off steam: Anger is cathartic, which is why repressing or suppressing it has been linked to a wide range of psychological and physical well-being deficits. As Mark Twain famously noted, “Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.”

Actually improving things: Anger is a signal that the status quo must be changed, and it can fuel moral outrage, which is often a force for good.

And yet, there’s no question that anger is also corrosive. For example, it makes people bitter, it prioritizes hate over love, and is divisive and polarizing. Above all, anger perpetuates the belief that we are right (even when we are clearly wrong) that things cannot be changed. Anger is rarely the most effective approach to dealing with problems, even when it does invite constructive and proactive actions as a follow up. 

People differ in their propensity to experience anger, which is mostly what emotional stability (or emotional intelligence) refers to. Think about it as a continuum that ranges from the Dalai Lama on the low end to the character of Tony Soprano on the high end, or from Angela Merkel to Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. There’s as much variability in people’s tendency to express (or repress) anger as there is in how they look. 

There are also known gender and cultural differences in anger. Most notably, men are more likely to express anger in terms of physical aggression as compared with women who are more likely to suppress anger (mostly because they are socialized to do this from a young age). As for cultural differences, though anger is a universal and biologically rooted emotion, nations differ in how it is typically expressed, interpreted, and what concessions are made when anger is infused in different interactions and situations. For example, passive aggressive cultures (e.g., Japan, Britain, Sweden) may be more likely to engage in polite displays of fake friendliness while actually feeling angry, compared to more direct, intense, and emotional cultures (e.g., Argentina, Israel, France). 

But the most practical lessons from science is that everybody can learn to manage their anger more effectively, and that there are clear benefits to doing so. Here are some tools and approaches that can with anger management.

Cognitive behavioral therapy: As it is designed to help people reframe their thoughts, become indifferent to anger triggers, and develop new habits, CBT is arguably the most effective anger-reduction mechanism. Those in serious need of anger management may not find a better alternative.

Mindfulness: Its ability to help people get in the zone and suspend evaluation or self-conscious emotions, also reduces anger. Unfortunately, angry people are generally less inclined to practice it, which says a lot about the role of motivation in both perpetuating and decreasing anger. 

Empathy: This improves people’s ability to take others’ perspective, and significantly reduces people’s anger and aggression displays. This approach helps people to step outside their little ego cocoon and understand that there are two sides to any conflict, which is key to attaining self-awareness and potentially acknowledging one’s own share of blame and responsibility when things aren’t going well (which, of course, will not necessarily eliminate anger per se).

Rational compassion: The habit of being kind and prosocial to others even when we don’t necessarily empathize with them is a powerful force for reducing anger expression in any environment. And because acts of kindness are as likely to be reciprocated as acts of anger, rational compassion will nurture prosocial and positive behaviors from others, which can even mitigate our internal anger. So, making an effort to be nice and rewarding to deal with is an obvious deterrent to anger, both in ourselves and others. 

Avoiding stressors: Reducing our exposure to situations that may trigger us is a well established technique that everyone can apply to minimize the experience of anger. With minimal self-awareness, we are all capable of knowing what circumstances or environmental triggers are likely to irritate us, so proactively avoiding them or preparing ourselves to confront those situations with the right mindset will work wonders. 

There are many ways to self-coach and get better at managing our anger, and they will generally pay off. The point is not to eliminate it from our lives, which would not make us human, but to learn to control it and even display it in strategic ways, so as to mitigate its downside and leverage its upside. Ultimately, the best way to judge anger is by its particular effects, both on ourselves and others.


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