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Coping with Anger at Work

There’s this idea floating around that people shouldn’t get mad at work — a tricky, if not unreasonable task for people trying to manage their own anger. It’s like we expect that everyone, including ourselves, will be completely numb to use or abuse by someone in some sort of professional relationship. Nonsense.

Confession: I am one of those people. I have to manage my anger.  You wouldn’t know it by just observing me. I’m okay at pretending that I’m okay.

But let’s face it. We’re humans interacting with other humans. All of us have our own desires and agendas. So, you can’t avoid occasionally being disappointed or even offended by someone. It’s going to happen, whether they mean you ill or not.

So here are the things that I have learned that seem to help me the most. By the way, these are the suggestions that I WISH had been written in all the articles I read about anger at work, but weren’t. Most of those articles help you put a band-aid on your anger,  but inevitably just leave you feeling unresolved and … you guessed it … more angry in the future. Enough of that. It’s time to talk about strategies to lead you to peace, not just turn you into a ticking time bomb.


1. Recognize the Onset of Anger

This isn’t too hard. You feel pressure and tension build up in your body. We each have our own unique symptoms. Sometimes, I forget to breath and my ears get red hot.

Where this gets tricky is to understand that you are in this state and may even start acting irrationally. Learn to observe yourself from the side and talk yourself through it. Pretend your best friend or coach is there next to you, prompting you by saying things like, “Hey, you’re going to be okay. You’re just angry, that’s all. You’re having a physiological response to an emotion. It’s going to pass. Just keep breathing.”

This is where the literature on Emotional Intelligence comes in handy. If you struggle with being in touch with your feelings and the feelings of others, a good place to start is the works of Daniel Goleman, one of today’s thought leaders in EI. Start following him on LInkedIn for his latest publications.

2. Separate Yourself From Your Anger’s Target

Once you’ve recognized that you are angry at someone, move yourself physically out of their presence. Stay away for as long as it takes your physiological response to pass. If you’re interacting with that person virtually, walk away from your computer or your device. DO NOT make a phone call or send an email to that person OR ANY THIRD PARTY to blow off steam or get things off your chest. If thoughts are flying at you like darts, write them down. That way, you’ll have raw material to work with later.

3. Allow Yourself to Feel Angry

There is nothing inherently wrong with feeling what you need to feel. It’s what you do with those feelings that can lead to poor consequences. Often, people who don’t give themselves permission to feel angry are the most angry people. So, tell yourself, “It’s okay for me to feel angry. I give myself permission to be angry. I just need a little time to myself.”

4. Analyze Your Role in the Interaction

Of course, there are times when someone will do or say something unpleasant and you are completely innocent. But more often than not, there is something you can learn about how to improve your own behavior. Even if you feel like the other party did something huge and you only messed up a little bit, you can still take away something. You might think that you are acknowledging your weakness by admitting responsibility, but you’re actually walking the paths of all the great entrepreneurs and thought leaders by “failing fast” and learning from your mistakes.

5. Consider What Needs to Change

Do you need to stop working with this person? Does something in your relationship need to change? If so, how would you communicate that to them? Will they be receptive to your message? Find ways to take action, rather than hold a grudge.  If you can’t find an action to take or are unwilling to take action, prepare yourself for the next step.

6. Look at the Situation From the Other Person’s Perspective

Clearly, the other party is trying to solve some problem by doing whatever they did. What is that problem? There may even be opportunity for you to rise to the occasion help me a solution, rather than an impediment. At any rate, you’ll understand the other person better.

7. Find Support

If it’s a significant other, a counselor, or a mentor, these people can listen to your feelings and help be a second coach helping you navigate the rocky landscape you are treading. Don’t try to find help in a co-worker. All your doing is poisoning the workplace culture. Also, find support from someone who will help you see things honestly, not someone who will justify you in your feelings by painting the other party as “the bad guy.”

8. Accept What Happened

This means accepting the actions of the other party and accepting responsibility for your own behavior, if it was out of place. Sometimes, we think the situation is so unique and we are so special, that we develop this “poor me” or “can you believe it” attitude.

9. Forgive

I think this is the part that is missing from the articles I mentioned earlier. In today’s world, we have this expectation that life’s going to be fair, and if it isn’t, we must make it so. Forgiving the other party doesn’t mean you have to be a doormat. If you need to set a boundary, set a boundary (see step 5 above). But ultimately, your anger is directed person-to-person, so let go of the need to see justice administered and forgive the offender. Trust me. This is the most important step in defusing your anger and better coping with it in the future. Remember that forgiveness requires a conscious decision. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you have forgiven someone when, in reality, all you’ve done is deferred your anger for the next time they cross you. Forgiveness is when you tell yourself, “I’m frustrated and hurt by this person, but I’m going to make a decision to let go of these feelings and move forward.”

Our goal is to put ourselves in a better emotional state so that we can go back to the person and explain what happened, how it affected you, and what you’d like to be done differently. You can offer responsibility for your own part in the interaction. Hopefully, you’ll be better colleagues in the long run. Storm and norm together today to make a better team for tomorrow.

Ultimately, we want to gradually rid ourselves of anger-based tension so that we can bounce back more easily. Start now. Your future will thank you. Good luck.