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  • Writer's pictureClaire Lawrence

Different flavours of anger at work

When we think about aggression at work, there are lots of behaviours that spring to mind. We might think of some form of physical aggression, like punching, grabbing, spitting. We might think of verbal assaults like threats, insults and offensive language. Some of us might also think about aggressive silences, isolating someone or making malicious complaints. Whichever aggressive behaviour we think of, we usually consider one emotion to be at its base: anger.

When we encounter another person who is visibly angry at work or elsewhere, research shows that we typically become more alert and vigilant. We are right to do so. Consistently, experience and data show that anger does predict aggressive behaviour, more than any other emotion, and so it’s a useful warning sign of potential threat.

We then do two things, quickly. First, we assess how much immediate danger we might be in. I’ve talked about our response to anticipated threat in this earlier blog. Second, we try to work out what has caused the other person’s anger. This is where we typically fall prey to an established psychological phenomenon called the Fundamental Attribution Error. Simply put, this means, we attribute the cause of other people’s behaviour to something to do with them – their character. We are most likely to do this when the person belongs to a different group to us, or if it’s a person or group we don’t like.

If you think about the last time you felt angry? What did you see as the cause of your anger? The chances are, it was the result of a person, group, or organisation doing something you thought was unreasonable, unjust or hostile. We tend not to see the cause of our anger as our own personality.

So, by contrast, when we think about our own anger, we tend to think about things a little differently. We often have a whole variety of external reasons to explain our feelings, for example, the unreasonable behaviour of the other person, the unworkable process, the terrible IT system, or the poor service from an organisation.

Importantly, we (usually) don’t imagine for a moment that we are actually going to hit someone and so we often don’t consider that the person we are talking to would feel threatened. To us, our anger feels like a justified and appropriate response to some negative event.

Importantly, when we ask people what emotion we were feeling, they will often report that they were angry, but they also add something more: they might say that they felt let down, frustrated, exhausted, shocked, hurt, humiliated, disappointed or felt a sense of injustice or unfairness.

We don’t assume these same nuances or ‘flavours’ of anger when we think of others’ anger. How many times, do we describe someone’s angry behaviour by saying something like: “He just lost it”; “She was having a real go at me”; “They came in ranting and raving”. We think of their anger as the result of their irrationality, lack of control or unreasonableness: the Fundamental Attribution Error. By automatically assuming angry behaviours are irrational and something rooted inside the person, our organisations lose the ability to manage and learn from the situation, and we lose the ability to make our workplaces safer by reducing the risk of anger-based aggression.

By considering these alternative ‘flavours’ of anger, we can start to see how to manage and pre-empt angry and aggressive interactions and generate more positive places to work and interact with.

As the UK moves out of lockdown, and our organisations open up in new, and perhaps different, ways, we have a great opportunity to consider the safety of our workplaces and procedures, beyond a Covid-19 perspective.

One innovative technique that we use in Lawrence PsychAdvisory is the Anger Walkthrough. Seeing your organisation through the eyes of a customer or client is common from a marketing perspective, but by looking at an organisation’s processes to see where these different anger flavours can be activated, organisations can gain an immensely useful series of techniques to understand how small changes can make a difference. Are our procedures frustrating? Does the layout of our workplace generate points of conflict? Could our clients feel humiliated by our standard processes? Might our service users experience unfairness and prejudice on a daily basis, and so may feel particularly let down in response to perceived injustice?

We have decades of experience in looking at organisations through a lens based in evidence and experience to identify factors that generate these different flavours of anger and aggression. As a result, we can help identify ways to elevate and improve the emotional experience of those who come into contact with your organisation, and offer you a bespoke toolkit to reduce aggression.

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