Seeing Red -- Handling 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 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 hysteria and panic.

With so much work to do, little down time 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. Rather like stress, it is how we deal with them that determine whether they are destructive. Anger and frustration can often be channeled into creativity, focus, and drive. That very same energy turned outward in a positive manner can help a young business achieve more and move to the next level. Many an entrepreneur has 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.


Anger is destructive when it festers or takes the form of personal attacks. The underlying cause of anger can be hidden fear. That can be fear of making a mistake, 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 turn previously serene people into highly touchy, emotional people.

When people get angry about a particular situation, there are often four beliefs underlying the emotion.

  • Belief (1)—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 (2)—it’s happening to me only, “Why are my suggestions in the production meeting being ignored?”
  • Belief (3)—it is out of my control, “The system is so complex that it takes forever to get a check issued.”
  • Belief (4)—my territory has been invaded. Someone else using the desk, taking the stapler or office supplies. Territory can include personal space, physical possessions, privacy, and time.

What you can do

Anger is an uncomfortable emotion and it is tempting to ignore it in the hopes 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 are legitimate. Often the anger is about a real difficulty at work that can be remedied. Attempt to see the other person’s point of view. After the immediate blow up has passed, 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 person just blew up, it is difficult for them 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. The angry person must learn other ways of expressing anger or disappointment. For procedural changes, making a plan with clear time lines for implementation will help a diffused situation remain so.

Intervention by a third party at times is necessary. That might be the human resources department, outside conflict resolution team, or in extreme cases, mediation. Before it gets to this point, identify issues and be willing to face the situation directly. This will help you form a more effective intervention strategy.

Odette Pollar is a nationally known speaker, author, and consultant. President of the management consulting firm, Smart Ways to Work based in Oakland, CA, her most recent book is Surviving Information Overload. Email to share your comments, questions and suggestions: Visit us at: call: 1-800-599-8463.

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