One of the most common things that comes up in my workplace conflict resolution work is disagreement about the appropriateness of how people express (or don’t express) anger. It’s no surprise that this happens all the time. After all, most of us have very complex relationships with this feeling.
Like everyone, I grew up with a variety of messages about anger. My mom’s extended family believed in the saying “If you can’t say anything nice don’t say anything at all.” I learned very clearly that if you showed your anger at my grandmother’s house you would be in trouble.
My dad, on the other hand, expressed his opinions loudly, forcefully, and critically. He expected other people to argue equally passionately. People like my grandparents were intimidated and appalled by people like my father, and didn’t know how to relate.
Ironically both the anger-averse and the anger-expressive sides of my family came about their relationship to anger through a combination of cultural background and difficult childhood experiences, and the strategies they learned to protect themselves. My dad learned to come out (verbally) swinging: that “The best defence is a good offence.” My grandparents learned at an early age that anger is unpredictable, out of control and should be avoided.
I share this story to demonstrate that people experience and express anger differently depending on their histories and norms. While everyone experiences anger, we all have different ways of managing the intense energy it can bring.
Anger is neither good nor bad. It’s how we relate to it that makes the difference.
Anger is often referred to as a secondary emotion, because it often covers up other emotions that are harder to feel, such as sadness, humiliation, rejection, guilt, and shame. It can feel empowering to express when there is not enough safety to express the more vulnerable emotions. At times it can be very important for our emotional safety to protect these emotions with the strength and power of anger.
Anger can also be righteous, and exactly what is needed in a situation. It is a source of energy, motivation, and direction that helps us stand up for ourselves, our loved ones and things we care about. Anger helps us to know when we have reached our limit and need to set a boundary. It is an essential part of the process of healing when we have been harmed and can be a catalyst to make important changes in our lives and in the world.
However, if we are never able to feel, accept, and process these other emotions, we can sometimes find ourselves stuck in cycles of anger. This is when there is a risk of inflicting it on the people we most care about, or on relationships we depend on. Sometimes other people may experience our anger as traumatic, abusive, bullying, or violent. It can lead to the end of relationships and tremendous suffering for everyone, including the person feeling the anger.
How does this show up in the workplace?
Addressing anger in the workplace is very complex, and each situation and relationship is different. For example, someone’s healthy and necessary expression of anger might feel constructive and supportive to one person, and feel harmful and unsafe to someone else.
People who tend to avoid or suppress anger are often celebrated as polite, professional, mature and rational. They are more likely to be promoted to leadership roles. This can sometimes reinforce conflict avoidant workplace cultures that are nice at the expense of honesty and open dialogue.
On the other hand, some workplace cultures reward competition and the use of power over others to get ahead. Sometimes in these situations, anger, aggression and even bullying are seen as a normal demonstration of leadership and control. In these workplaces, people feel unmotivated, leave as soon as they can, and approach each other with suspicion and distrust.
Both of these patterns – suppression of anger and overvaluing it – can create unsafe and high conflict workplaces.
A safer and more generative workplace would be one in which people are supported to express and receive anger (and other emotions) in ways that deepen understanding and help everyone make better and more equitable decisions, without creating an environment of fear and distrust.
How this plays out in terms of identity
In many workplaces, norms around professionalism lead people like my father to be labelled as difficult or trouble makers. They are more likely to be seen as “not a fit” for the culture and even performance managed out of the organization.
This is especially true when we cross norms about anger with social identity and power. For example, women are often accused of being aggressive for behaviour that is considered assertive or direct coming from men. This is even more true for Black and Indigenous people, as well as many people of colour, for whom being labelled “angry” can have massive consequences. For example, research demonstrates that Black women are often labelled angry for giving direct feedback or expressing disagreement: behaviours that would be overlooked or even valued coming from white (particularly white male) coworkers. This has massive consequences. Being labelled angry or aggressive affects a person’s performance evaluations, pathways to leadership, and long term success in the organization.
In addition, our society’s dislike of anger is sometimes used to silence important but unpopular perspectives. The expectation that people communicate in polite and contained ways can reinforce inequities and prohibit people from getting their needs met. It can also reinforce more passive or round-about ways of expressing anger. For example, sarcastic comments, hostile gossip, and subtle undermining can be equally damaging to our relationships and our own wellbeing.
Several times, I have been called into situations in which someone has been raising concerns about a lack of equity in the workplace that they have experienced or witnessed. That person is often accused of making people uncomfortable and being aggressive or unprofessional, for behaviour that I would describe as firmly and assertively naming uncomfortable truths. The consequences for naming a problem in the workplace can be severe. Many people in this situation end up leaving, either because they no longer feel welcome, or because they are performance managed out. Not only is this reinforcing the initial discrimination, but it is telling everyone in the workplace that it is not ok to name problems if they make other people uncomfortable.
What does it mean to relate to anger skillfully in the workplace?
Given the complexity of our relationships to anger, it can be very helpful for an organization to purposefully agree on principles and boundaries about how we communicate when things get hard. It is important to involve everyone in this conversation whenever possible. How can we invite anger to be present while also recognizing the impact it might be having on people? How can we create an environment that feels safe enough for people who have had traumatic experiences of anger, while also recognizing the harm that can be done when people are told to tone it down or sanctioned for expressing anger? These are not easy questions, and can really only be answered within the context of the organization, with deep respect and care for the specific people who work there and the culture you are trying to create.
- What are our norms around disagreeing, professionalism, and critical feedback?
- What happens when people disagree with each other?
- If we tend to suppress anger in this workplace, how does it come out in subtle ways?
- How might our workplace be shutting down anger in unhelpful ways?
- How might our workplace be prioritizing or amplifying anger in unhelpful ways?
- What do people need to feel safe enough to express their own anger or receive other people’s anger?
- What do people need to feel able to express anger in effective ways?
- What kinds of boundaries does your workplace set around people’s reactions in conflict? Do these boundaries align with principles of equity? Do these boundaries align with principles of psychological safety?
Make sure that as you answer these questions, you are doing so in alignment with your workplace’s policies and practices around conflict resolution, human rights, accommodation, and equity and diversity practices. When you seriously investigate these questions, you might find that some of those policies and practices need to be updated to support the culture you want to create.
As a leader, get to know your own patterns around anger.
As a leader, your relationship to anger has a tremendous influence on the culture of your workplace. Here are a few questions to help you reflect on how to be more intentional about your impact on culture.
- What have you learned about anger from your culture, family, or past experience?
- How do you react when someone in your workplace expresses anger (or doesn’t express it) differently from what you are comfortable with?
- How can you become more aware of any assumptions or judgments you might be making about people based on your understanding of what is an appropriate expression of anger?
- How might your values and norms around anger and direct communication support (or not support) the culture you want to create?
There is no easy or quick answer to our struggles with anger. It is uncomfortable and inevitable that we will feel it. The more we can understand it – the more we can bear to gently look it in the face – the more power we have to create workplace cultures that support everyone to express anger in ways that lead to greater understanding and increased fairness.
How can you support people in your workplace to engage with anger in generative ways? Check out our upcoming learning opportunities for leaders: Building Emotional Agility and Generative Conflict: Leadership Skills for Healthy Workplaces. You can also sign up for the Big Waves mailing list for special promotions and to be the first to know about the upcoming launch of an at-your-own-pace conflict skills training!