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

Managers should encourage employees to come up with solutions
By Amanda Silliker
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 06/05/2011

When George Raine witnesses an angry outburst from an employee, he brings the employee into his office for a chat. He starts by saying, “I understand you’re angry, why don’t you tell me what you’re upset about?” and then he listens for as long as it takes.

Raine’s compassion is the best response to workplace anger, according to a recent study.

“Anger is an indicator there is a problem that really needs attention and a supportive response gives us a chance to start a conversation,” said Deanna Geddes, chair of the Fox School of Business’ human resource management department at Temple University in Philadelphia and co-author of the study. “Sanctions very often can prevent that very valuable information exchange.”

The study’s researchers surveyed 194 employees who witnessed an incident of deviant anger — characterized as physical acts, intense verbal displays and inappropriate communication. They found no connection between sanctioning an irate employee — which could include termination, probation and written warnings — and solving underlying workplace problems.

“If you look at workplace anger, it’s a response to a sense of helplessness and isolation and getting angry back at someone who is feeling this way actually adds to the problem,” said Raine, president of Montana Consulting Group in Moncton, N.B. “You never get to the underlying issue with sanctions — you just ignore it.”

Compassion is the best response because it doesn’t escalate the anger and it shows others you care about them, you want to understand them and you will try to help them cope with what is bothering them, said Judy Erickson, principal of JME Consulting, a specialist recruitment firm based in Edmonton.

And doing nothing is just as bad, said Geddes.

“We were thinking management doing nothing might be perceived as showing support, but that’s not true,” she said. “You need to do something and talking to someone is the best thing.”

When a manager witnesses or hears about an outburst of deviant anger, he should act on it immediately and bring the employee into his office, said Erickson.

“You want to talk to them calmly and figure out what’s really going on,” she said. “Listen, listen, listen, don’t debate it, don’t justify anything; you’re just giving credence to the other person that you get they’re angry — you don’t want to get sucked into the emotions of the moment.”

Once the employee has calmed down, the manager should ask open-ended questions to figure out what the underlying issue is, said Erickson.

“It was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back and you need to dig a lot deeper than what you saw or heard,” she said.

Managers the top reason for anger outbursts

The number one reason employees become angry is their manager, said Geddes. Having a conversation with an angry employee allows a manager to become aware of behaviour that was perceived as unfair or inappropriate, she said.

The manager should then ask the employee what a good solution would be.

“If managers start throwing solutions at the employee, the employee will not attach emotionally to that,” said Raine. “The most common answer is, ‘I don’t know,’ but just wait that one out — they always think of something.”

If the anger outburst was directed toward another employee, the manager must discuss the issue with everyone involved, said Erickson. He should speak with each employee individually and then bring everyone together to discuss the appropriate course of action.

If the behaviour continues, the manager should conduct more discussions and help the employee brainstorm a solution, said Raine. If the behaviour still persists, management may want to get a third party involved.

“If you don’t really see any change in people’s behaviour and it’s starting to impact others on the team, then the manager should get HR involved or refer them to the company’s EAP,” said Erickson.

Prevention through policies, code of conduct, workshops

To prevent workplace anger, an organization’s policies and code of conduct should make it clear the employer values a respectful workplace, said Raine.

“(The code of conduct) could include examples of actions and behaviours that are breaches of employment expectations, such as a loud use of voice or abusive, threatening language,” he said.

To reduce instances of problematic deviant anger, the corporate culture should be one where employees are encouraged to express their emotions honestly, without punishment, said Geddes.

“Anger expression can be a very useful change agent and can help (managers) identify where to spend their time,” she said. “It can make the environment much more positive and, in a sense, people will be happier and less angry because the situation is improving.”

Employers should also provide training and workshops on how to deal with workplace anger and best practices for conflict resolution. In an ideal world, this would be a part of the orientation or onboarding process, said Erickson.

If left unattended, workplace anger may escalate into aggression, rage or violence, she said.

“Undoubtedly, some of it is aggression and it could lead to violence where a compassionate response might not be appropriate — you might need to call the cops and have them removed,” said Geddes.

Employers need to be active in attempting to reduce outbursts of deviant anger since it can severely impact employee morale and attitude, said Erickson.

“You want a culture where people are enabling others to be engaged and participate and communicate, but in the appropriate manner, and if you just let workplace anger go, then there’s your culture,” she said. “You just created a culture that lets that happen.”

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