The benefits of being angry at work

Anger in the workplace is wrong. Right? Well, wrong actually. HR needs to allow managers and staff to be angry with each other, finds Peter Crush

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Oct 31, 2023

Every week it’s estimated that around 19% of employees feel raw and very real anger towards their co-workers (according to data from the latest American Psychological Association – 2023 Work in America report).

Most of the time, this feeling is internalized, but when it spills out it can often take the form of berating/bullying; dismissing someone in front of their colleagues, or being intimidating – all things that lead to toxic workplaces, and harm to people’s mental wellbeing.

Understandably perhaps, anger in modern workplaces is regarded as unwanted, unjustified, unnecessary, and if it exists at all, it’s a sign that the person expressing it needs training not to show it.

But is it actually realistic to either deny or suppress a legitimate emotion that is part of the human condition?

And is there actually a benefit in allowing managers and employees to get mad with each other in a controlled way?

According to Scott Edinger, regular contributor to Forbes and Harvard Business Review, and author of the soon to be published book, The Growth Leader, anger has been vilified in the workplace.

He says that instead of this, it should be recognized for its more positive ability to inject energy, focus people’s attention and communicate urgency.

He suggests quashing the feeling of anger is ultimately not helpful.

So we thought we needed to hear more.

TLNT spoke exclusively to Scott about why he feels anger is something HR and organizations shouldn’t be afraid of having their people demonstrate:

Q: OK, so we’ve all been brought up to think anger is a loss of control – so why do you think it still has a place?

A: “My work in this area is around looking at the bigger picture; about how leaders can inspire, motivate and lead their teams to growth. We’ve all been through a period of survival, but leaders can’t simply ‘tell’ their staff to be inspired. They need to ‘do’ the inspiring, and what I’m saying is that what makes leaders inspiring is their ability to use and connect via emotion. It’s the human condition to have emotions, and it’s part of a leaders’ role to ‘connect’ people through emotion – not excessive emotion – but emotion nonetheless. Anger is part of this. But the reason it gets such a bad reputation is because it’s either used excessively or it’s misused – in that it gets in the way of it being able to inspire.

Q: So are you saying being angry with someone can be inspiring?

A: “The problem with holding emotions in, and being all ‘rah-rah’ is that it creates issues at the other end of the spectrum – ie toxic positivity – which we’ve all seen lots written about. Too much positivity ruins the whole damn thing! What we all need to remember – and I think we’ve actually forgotten this – is that anger can be used powerfully, if used appropriately.

Q: How so?

A: “It can be used to express frustration, about a situation that has worsened, and that something needs to be done to move forward. Anger doesn’t have to be all seething, and about the gnashing of teeth. Anger on its own – rudeness, yelling, anything that devalues people in a raw kind of way is not appropriate. But communicating anger, rather than just being angry is useful. It’s about saying you have concern about something, that we’re still doing the same mistakes etc. Here it can then make an emotional connection. Anger is this context can inspire people to take better collective action rather than be something that pushes people away and intimidates.”

Q: Is there a skill to being angry then?

A: “You certainly need to back it up, and not in some flat, or phlegmatic way. You also have to express anger in a professional way. It’s OK to say that you’re super-pissed about something, because in this context anger is there to have a conversation. It’s about expressing the anger properly, so that it can be driven to in the right way – that is, to get everyone on the same page.

Q: Have businesses not done this well in the past?

A: “I would say that in general, leaders have always had problems dealing with things like poor performance – but I just think it’s impossible to deny the veracity of our emotions, and nor should we. If we’re always holding onto our anger, we’ve literally got lava below our surfaces, just waiting to blow. And that definitely isn’t a good thing! What I’m trying to say, is that even when you’re angry, there’s still no guarantee it will have the desired effect. But it’s more likely to if you’re thoughtful about how you express it.

Q: You talk about misuse of anger – what do you mean?

A: “Anger can be a front that hides other issues, which is one misuse. But the worst misuse of it is when it’s not clear why you’re getting angry in the first place. Anger needs to be proportional to the context. It needs to relate to something specific, and with reason. Then, you have to save using it for when it really matters, otherwise the anger loses its potency. When done well, expressing anger actually ‘creates’ energy, because it’s being used with the intention to connect, and get people on the same page.

Q: Is there a wrong amount of times you can be angry?

Q: “In marriage therapy, it’s often said that couples need to exchange five happy sentiments to offset each unhappy one, so maybe there’s something in around having to offer five indications of support for every angry one. But broadly, I would say that anger needs positivity to work too. If you’re going to get more angry with people – in the right way – you need to mirror that with being supportive as well. Anger certainly has more impact if it doesn’t happen all the time.”

Q: So there really is room for a bit more – correct – anger at work?

A: “Yes. To me, operating without constructive anger is just being a ‘BS’ leader. I’m not saying you have to use anger all the time; but you do just have to be strategic about it. It’s highly effective in making someone a powerful leader. Even placid people have frustrations. We’ve got to remember that all our emotions are there all the time. We just need to channel using the right ones at the right time.”

What the data says:

One in four workers experience workplace incivility, fueling toxic work environments, according to a new (2023) study by meQuilibrium.

 It finds:

  • One in four employees reported experiencing rude, disrespectful or aggressive behavior in the workplace
  • Uncivil behaviors include being ignored (26.1%), having one’s judgment questioned (24.2%) and coworkers addressing colleagues in an unprofessional manner (17.3%)
  • About 1-in-20 employees reported being targeted with angry outbursts, being yelled or cursed at, being accused of incompetence or being the butt of jokes from coworkers.
  • Employees facing high incivility work environments report an elevated risk of job worries (42.4%), burnout (37%) and low motivation (33.5%).
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