Anger is an emotion often felt at work, and it can actually help you perform better at your job when channeled properly.
New research published in the “Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,” found anger motivates people to better navigate challenging tasks than those feeling indifferent. But while it’s possible to direct that energy toward a meaningful outcome, it can also turn passive-aggressive and toxic, and lead to energy wasted on things like “rage applying,” for example.
Researchers analyzed students at Texas A&M University by showing them pictures intended to anger them, including a slideshow of photos with imagery insulting their school and mascot and other offensive and inciting photos. Those students solved more problems on a challenging computer game and did so quicker than those who weren’t shown the images. Researchers chose anger because it is widely viewed as a negative emotion, “so much so that people will pay money to avoid experiencing it,” the study said, “yet, according to the functional accounts, anger should facilitate goal pursuits in particular situations.”
Say a coworker misrepresented your work, or took ownership of something you did. If it fires you up, “it can be really productive to say, ‘Well no, actually, this is mine,’ or to be rather forceful about that, and coming from a place of self assertion,” said Whitney McSparran, a licensed professional clinical counselor at Thriveworks.
“That’s sort of like almost moral anger. I feel really strongly about this being right or this being wrong, can be very useful,” McSparran said. “Especially when you are put in a position where you can kind of do what is right or you can do what is easy, and it may be easy to just let it go, to not say something, to not rock the boat,” she said.
“When we are upset or bothered by something, then we have a greater likelihood or a greater interest in changing it, and that’s where our anger could really come in handy,” said Christy Pruitt-Haynes, global head of talent and performance practice at NeuroLeadership Institute.
Avoiding passive aggression
But that only works in environments where staff feel psychologically safe to express their emotions and where they can trust their concerns will be heard and acted upon.
“If we’re in an environment where expressing anger or expressing concern is frowned upon, then each individual is going to spend the majority of their energy trying to cover how they feel instead of using those emotions using those questions and those thoughts to really propel them forward,” Pruitt-Haynes said.
“When we feel powerless to change it, we tend to act out. It’s almost like a toddler who may be upset because you’ve told them they have to go to bed and they know they don’t have the power to change their bedtime. “And that’s adults, honestly our brains work in the same way.”
In those cases, anger typically drives passive aggressive behaviors. Some of the most often cited passive-aggressive phrases workers cited from emails include “please advise,” “friendly reminder,” “going forward,” and “per our conversation,” according to a recent report from TollFreeForwarding.com, a telecom provider.
That kind of anger that’s not useful comes more from a place of feeling threatened or undervalued, McSparran said. “Because when we sort of follow those feelings to the end of the train, they’re not coming from a place where we feel powerful and safe and secure. They come from a place of feeling unsafe, insecure, and being sort of in a chronic state of feeling insecure or scared is not good for long-term productivity,” she said.