How Managers Can Handle Anger in the Workplace

Marilyn is irritated at the way Robert presents new projects. Juan sighs heavily and shakes his head when work is added to his in-box. Karl, an older worker, is resentful when a younger colleague calls him by his first name. Carla frequently takes long breaks and manages to extend her lunch hour far beyond the allotted time –which angers her coworkers. Sharena seems moody and unpredictable. Sean waits until the last minute to get work done, resulting in panic and near-hysteria.

With so much work to do, little downtime, and many different personalities, conflicts are bound to occur. The occasional flare-up is one thing, but a workplace that is seething is quite another. When tension levels run high, the slightest snafu is likely to make one of your staff explode. No sooner is one situation diffused than another erupts. On bad days, due to the disagreements and resentments brewing in the office, you may feel amazed that any work gets done at all.

Frustrations at work are natural and normal. Like coping with stress, it is how we deal with them that determines whether they are destructive. Anger and frustration can often be channeled into creativity, focus, and drive. That very same energy, if channeled in a positive direction, can help a young business achieve more and move to the next level. Many an entrepreneur identified frustrations in the corporate world and used that as a motivation to go out on his or her own. As a manager, helping staff handle anger and channel it into forward momentum will keep the workplace safe and productive.

What’s behind the anger

When people get angry about a particular situation, there are often three beliefs underlying the emotion. Belief One: The event is absolutely unfair. “No one else has to stay late. It’s not my fault they have to commute so far to get home.” Belief Two: It’s happening to me only. “Why are my suggestions in the production meeting being ignored?” Belief Three: It is out of my control. “The system is so complex that it takes forever to get a check issued.”

Another trigger is when an employee feels that his or her territory has been invaded. He or she may resent someone else using the desk, taking the stapler, or hoarding office supplies. Some hard-driving employees are also irritated when coworkers drop by to chat. Territory can include personal space, physical possessions, privacy, and time.

Anger is destructive when it festers or takes the form of personal attacks. The underlying cause of anger is often hidden fear. That can be fear of making a mistake or potentially losing a job or a promotion opportunity. Financial difficulties are very stressful, and worry takes its toll. Feeling inadequate when faced with new procedures or technology can also turn previously serene employees into highly touchy, emotional people.

What you can do

Anger is an uncomfortable emotion, and it is tempting to ignore it in the hope that “everything will settle down soon.” Managers need to face the situation and recognize that no problem is going to go away simply because you ignore it. Blow-ups at the office halt work, and work stoppages must be prevented.

Acknowledge the anger — the feelings may be legitimate. Often the anger is about a real difficulty at work that can be remedied. Attempt to see the employee’s point of view. After the issue is out in the open, choose a time to discuss what happened and what sorts of strategies can address the problems. Waiting until the crisis has passed is better than trying to solve it while in the middle of the fire. Similarly, if an angry employee just blew up, it is difficult to go from anger to problem-solving immediately. Allowing some time to pass will help the person to calm down and regain the ability to reason and think clearly.

Develop an action plan with specific steps for behavior modification or system change. An employee who lashes out against his co-workers must learn other ways of expressing anger or disappointment. For procedural changes, making a plan with clear time lines for implementation will help defuse the situation and help keep things calm.

There are times when intervention by a third party is necessary. That might be the human resources department, outside conflict resolution team, or in extreme cases, mediators. Before it gets to this point, identify the issues causing anger and be willing to face the situation directly. This will help you form a more effective intervention strategy. These strategies will hopefully get the “red” out of your workplace.


“Workplace Anger,”

“Workplace Anger — Who Wins?”, August 3, 2007

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