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How to Use Anger Constructively in the Workplace to Find Happiness

Being angry in the workplace usually results in unhappy workers, not happy ones. It’s not anger that gets you in trouble at work; it’s how you express your anger. Charlie uses his anger destructively whenever he gets frustrated at his secretary. He hollers at her, berates her, and slams his fist on her desk.

Elaine uses a more constructive approach to anger. She asks her secretary to come into her office so that what she has to say to her won’t be in public view. She starts out by telling the young woman that, for the most part, she’s satisfied with her performance at work, but in this particular instance she finds herself extremely irritated by a mistake that the secretary made.

Unlike Charlie, who just wants to vent his frustration, Elaine’s objective is to use her anger strategically to reduce future mistakes.

If you were the secretary, who would you want to work for?

In order to use anger constructively, you first have to decide where you want your anger to take you. If you’re Charlie, all you want is to blow off some steam. Elaine, on the other hand, wants to improve her relationship with her secretary — after all, good help is hard to find!

Step 1: Think about how you want to feel afterward

Many people believe that expressing anger in some outrageous manner relieves tension and leaves you feeling better afterward. Ironically, nothing could be farther from the truth. Psychologist James Averill at the University of Massachusetts, who has devoted his entire career to understanding anger, asked large numbers of people how they felt after they got angry with someone else.

Believe it or not, the vast majority felt like crap: Sixty-nine percent still felt aggravated; 59 percent felt unhappy; and, a third or more felt ashamed, embarrassed, guilty, and anxious. Only one in five reported feeling pleased, good, or confident afterward.

The explanation as to why most people feel bad after expressing our anger comes from the motives you have for expressing it — in other words, what do you hope to gain? Professor Averill found three motives that pretty much guide all expression of anger are destructive:

  • The need to assert my authority or to improve my image — selfish or self-centered anger.

  • The need to seek revenge — to get back at a fellow employee in some malicious way.

  • The need to vent pent-up frustration.

If you choose to use your anger constructively, afterward you will not feel:

  • Like holding a grudge against a coworker

  • Totally justified in continuing to dislike the other person

  • Defensive in social situations involving the other employee

  • Victimized by that person

  • As though you’re going to explode any minute

  • Pessimistic about being able to work effectively with this person in the future

Step 2: Make anger about the problem, not the person

The focus of Charlie’s anger is on his secretary, while Elaine’s focus in on the mistake the secretary made. This is a key distinction between constructive and destructive anger.

Personal attacks make people feel defiant, indifferent, hurt, angry, and rejected — none of which is conducive to improved work performance.

Concentrate on what you’re angry about, not who you’re angry at.

Step 3: Look at what’s underneath your anger

This step is easier than you think. Why? Because the source of your anger is you! Your anger has to do with your expectations, your values, what you demand from your coworkers, your level of tolerance, and so forth. Think of anger as a mirror into your heart and soul. Charlie may be angry at his secretary for some flaw or imperfection he can’t tolerate in himself.

The next time you find yourself angry with someone at work, ask yourself this question: Why am I so angry — what does my anger say about me? You’ll learn something about yourself.

Step 4: Be empathetic

Think about how you express your anger at work and then ask yourself how you would feel and react if you were on the receiving end of that behavior. Gives you a whole different perspective, doesn’t it? That perspective is what enables you to use anger constructively.

The ability to put yourself in the other employee’s shoes is called empathy and it comes in two forms:

  • Mental empathy: Dr. Avery Weisman, a renowned psychiatrist at Harvard University, summed it up best by describing this type of empathy as “having respect for another person’s irrationality.”

  • Emotional empathy: Most people are familiar with this kind of empathy. It’s when you actually feel the other person’s feeling. Their sadness makes you sad. Their nervousness makes you nervous. Their unhappiness makes you unhappy.

One is no better than the other — they’re just different manifestations of the same thing.

Step 5: Engage in give-and-take conversation

Constructive anger expression, like all forms of effective communication, involves a two-person dialogue. A monologue is when you do all the talking, shouting, or lecturing and the other party sits there passively like a ventriloquist’s dummy, speaking only when you let it. The important part here is the need for a balanced conversation. First you speak, then she speaks, and so on until you reach a point of mutual understanding.

Step 6: Watch your body language

Most of the reactions people have to other people’s anger has to do with nonverbal behavior. Here are some types of body language that clearly do not signal constructive anger expression:

  • Clenched fists

  • Finger pointing

  • Hand waving

  • Grabbing the other person by the arm

  • Arms crossed at the chest

  • Narrowing of the eyes

  • Glaring

  • Frowning

  • Loudly tapping the fingers

  • Speaking rapidly or loudly

  • Excessive head nodding

  • Breathing heavily

Avoid these types of body language if you want to accomplish something useful with your anger.

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