Respond to Workers’ Angry Outbursts with Compassion for Best Results

If an employee has an emotional, angry outburst at work, simply firing him may not solve the greater underlying problem in the workplace. One expert challenges traditional views of workplace anger by suggesting that these intense displays of emotion actually can be beneficial when they are met with compassion.

Deanna Geddes, Ph.D., chair of the Temple University Fox School of Business’ human resource management department, argues that more supportive responses by managers and coworkers after displays of deviant anger can promote positive change at work, while sanctioning or doing nothing does not.

The study, coauthored by University of Baltimore’s Lisa T. Stickney, Ph.D., states that “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.”

Improving Workplace Tension

In a study of 194 people who acknowledged witnessing an incident of “deviant anger” at work, the researchers found no connection between firing an irate employee and solving underlying workplace problems. Geddes and Stickney also found that even a single act of support by a manager or coworker 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 favorable working relationship,” the researchers wrote. By showing an active interest in the underlying issues that caused the anger, management can help improve the situation and workers’ perceptions.

“Business codes of conduct are often about what we shouldn’t do as an angry employee in emotional episodes, while few, if any, tend to address our role as observers of emotional episodes,” the article stated. “Such guidelines, if available, could expand to include positive suggestions for those who witness, judge and respond to angry employees – formally or informally.”

The findings stem from the Dual Threshold Model of workplace anger expression, which distinguishes between suppressed and deviant anger. Researchers label the space between suppressed and deviant anger as the zone most likely to achieve positive change. The model distinguishes between muted anger – complaints to coworkers and friends who lack the authority to resolve the situation – as the least productive way to prompt change.

“Some of the most transformational conversations come about through expressed anger,” Geddes said.

Findings from “The Trouble with Sanctions: Organizational Responses to Deviant Anger Displays at Work” were published in the journal Human Relations.

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