The next time you’re about to explode in rage at work – don’t. Take a break, a breather, a brisk walk, or whatever will restore your equilibrium and perspective. Anger in the workplace, coming from men or women of all managerial levels, can have serious economic repercussions, according to a new book based on a national survey, as well as in-depth interviews and academic studies. It can lead to resentment, sap productivity, and create an overall toxic work environment – not to mention rob leaders of the credibility they need to perform.
“Anger is far more of a third rail in the workplace than crying,” said Anne Kreamer, author of the new book, It’s Always Personal: Emotion in the New Workplace (Random House, $25). “Anger doesn’t command respect or enthusiasm. Your own righteous anger, of course, can be a motivating device and spur you to a level of excellence, or alert you to certain things. But anger coming from someone else directed at you is very de-motivating.”
A former senior vice president at Nickelodeon, Kreamer teamed up with advertising giant J. Walter Thompson to develop the Emotional Incidents in the Workplace Survey, which targeted men and women between ages 18 and 64. One critical finding: More than 60 percent of workers said they saw their boss get angry with someone in the past year.
It’s complicated terrain, involving biological, psychological and sociological forces. “Two of the behaviors that ensured our species’ survival – fighting and fleeing – would be inappropriate, shocking, and grounds for dismissal at work,” Kreamer says. She elaborated:
The Fiscal Times (TFT): A woman always loses when she expresses anger at work, you say. How so?
Anne Kreamer (AK): No matter what their positions, angry women at work are always viewed negatively, whereas when men express anger, some people – mostly younger men – see it as an asset. Women at the top, if they express anger, are often labeled a bitch, as we all know.
TFT: So what’s the practical takeaway – what is to be done?
AK: We need to get ‘rational’ about emotion in the workplace, if we can, instead of denying its existence. When men are under stress, their field of vision narrows. But when women are under stress, their field of vision expands. It makes intuitive sense: On the Savanna, our job was to make sure the kids survived; their job was to kill the lion. But we’re still operating with this cognitive structure. Men also produce cortisol and testosterone when under stress; women produce oxytocin. If I had known all of this when I was sitting in meetings and guys were getting super-aggressive about something, I would have said, ‘Oh, I get it. I get what’s going on.’
TFT: If anger is an emotion no one likes to see at work, why does it happen so often?
AK: In our survey, 69 percent of people were frustrated in the past year, and anger in response to frustration is one of the most pervasive kinds. It lets off steam and relieves stress. It’s still a problem, though.
TFT: What about tears at work? They’re not just expressions of sadness.
AK: By and large, the sadness experienced is about a close colleague being let go, or about things from the outside being brought in. Tears at work are mostly tied to frustration over not being heard or valued, or of feeling overwhelmed. In our survey, tears were viewed, even by men, as, ‘That’s just what people do now and then.’ Tears are a reset point. They let us produce dopamine, a neurotransmitter that increases mood, as well as other neurotransmitters and hormones that reduce stress. We should view tears as a biological function, like breathing or hiccupping.
TFT: Some women in managerial positions don’t view tears by underlings that way at all, though.
AK: No, they don’t. We’re at a very interesting moment today. Women who started working 40 years ago were told, ‘Man up. Whatever you do, do not let them see you cry.’ That’s when men were the dominant force at work and there were protocols about behavior in place. Now, with women forming over 50 percent of the workforce, we’re in a position to step back and say, ‘Let’s try to understand what the tears are about.’ Tears aren’t unprofessional or an embarrassment. They’re what people do.
TFT: Which is pretty much what John Boehner said on ‘60 Minutes’ not long ago, when Leslie Stahl asked him about his blubbering. He basically said, ‘This is how I am. Get over it.’
AK: And that’s what we should all be saying. People are either in the crying tribe or not. I’m a crier – I cry when I watch AT&T ads! John Boehner is part of my tribe. So is Mitch McConnell. Today we’re learning a lot about our hardwiring, and to the degree that we can be our authentic selves on the job, we’re all better off. Of course, if someone is crying every day, that needs attention.
TFT: As for anxiety, you say it can work in a person’s favor as long as it’s channeled correctly.
AK: Everybody’s anxious today. The economy is changing faster than we can adapt to it, as is the world. The NIH says 40 million Americans have been diagnosed with anxiety. We need to unplug, take a walk, develop a hobby to dissipate all of this open-ended anxiety. We should ask: What catastrophe might actually happen? We can then create steps to avert it or understand it. Companies must realize that if they can’t keep employees, they stand to lose a great deal.
TFT: Fear at work is also a reality in certain environments.
AK: But too often we mislabel anxiety as fear. We need to address it. Sometimes we have to sit quietly with it and see if we can’t tease apart the different factors.
TFT: Which requires a certain amount of wisdom.
AK: And that, in turn, brings a potential silver lining for the aging baby boomer population in this country: If they can become the social resource they are in other cultures, it would be hugely helpful to our work force.
TFT: What about happiness and the virtues of it at work?
AK: It just ripples out and out and out. As a manager, you can create environments where people can be who they authentically are, which will then encourage them to feel happy and connected – and lead to greater contributions to shared vision and commitment.
Key Findings from the Emotional Incidents in the Workplace Survey:
- Frustration is the dominant emotion Americans say they feel at work, with nearly three in four (73 percent) saying they've felt frustrated.
- Women say they feel anger at work slightly more than men do (44 percent of women versus 38 percent of men), though it's a primary feeling among the younger (age 18-44) women, 52 percent of whom report feeling angry, compared to only 42 percent of men in the same age group.
- Many young men (42 percent), however, feel that anger is an effective management tool, versus only 23 percent of young women.
- Nearly half (46 percent) of workers recall feeling anxiety in the past year, with only slightly higher (49 percent) numbers for women than for men (43 percent). Young women feel the most anxious (56 percent), especially when compared with young men (38 percent).
- Women under 45 are 10 times more likely to cry at work than men 45 and older.
- Surprisingly, whether or not someone had cried at work seems to make no difference in how much they like their job, for either men or women.
* -- from Anne Kreamer’s It’s Always Personal: Emotion in the New Workplace (Random House, $27)