Compassion, not sanctions, best response to workplace anger: Study

More supportive managers, co-workers promote positive change
|hrreporter.com|Last Updated: 04/15/2011

When emotional outbursts, even intense ones, occur in the workplace, the best response is compassion, according to two professors in the United States.

More supportive responses by managers and co-workers after displays of deviant anger can promote positive change at work, as opposed to sanctioning or doing nothing, according to Deanna Geddes, chair of Fox School’s human resources management department at Temple University in Philadelphia.

“When companies choose to sanction organizational members expressing deviant anger, these actions may divert attention and resources from correcting the initial, anger-provoking event that triggered the employee’s emotional outburst,” said Geddes, co-author of the study along with Lisa Stickney, an assistant professor in management at the University of Baltimore.

In a study of 194 people who witnessed an incident of deviant anger at work, the researchers found no connection between firing an irate employee and solving underlying workplace problems. Even a single act of support by a manager or co-worker and the angered employee can improve workplace tension.

Managers who recognize their potential role in angering an employee may be motivated to respond more compassionately to help restore a favourable working relationship, said the authors of The trouble with sanctions: Organizational responses to deviant anger displays at work, which was published in the journal Human Relations.

The findings stem from a “dual threshold model” of workplace anger expression, which distinguishes between suppressed and deviant anger and was created by Geddes and Ronda Callister, a professor in the department of management and human resources at Utah State University in Logan. They labelled the space between suppressed and deviant anger as the zone most likely to achieve positive change and distinguish between muted anger — complaints to co-workers and friends who lack the authority to resolve the situation — as the least productive way to prompt change.

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