Picture this: you walk into the office one morning and there's already a heated conversation going on. Brandon is berating Donna for not responding to his emails and causing him to miss an important deadline. Donna is furious with Brandon because she thinks his criticism is unfair – she has been snowed under with other commitments and helping Brandon did not feature highly on her list of priorities. She's upset that he's shouting at her in such an insensitive way.
Most of us are exposed to expressions of anger in the workplace. These can begin with the most trivial of irritations and escalate into all-out cubicle wars. For instance, what starts out as frustration over an unanswered email, targeted at one person's behavior, might quickly lead to people taking sides about the way the team communicates generally. Anger is a tough emotion to control. When it spills out across the team, there's a risk that people will start attacking other viewpoints and become entrenched in their own worldviews. Eroded trust and trigger-happy decision making is almost guaranteed.
While any small event can provoke irritation, generally, there are three major causes of anger in the workplace. The challenge for leaders is to identify these causes and know how and when to intervene.
Cause #1: Personality Clashes
To someone with a Judging preference, a delayed response to an email may be seen as a personal slight, whereas the person they sent the email to may just be the kind of person – typically a Perceiver – who works close to deadline. It's extremely common for someone to get angry when a co-worker makes the type of mistake that they would never make (like ignoring an email) because it feels rude and disrespectful to them. Moving the goalposts ("you asked me to deliver this project with six people, and now you want me to do it with fewer hands on deck?") will infuriate some personalities; being inflexible in the face of change will irritate others.
The point is, everyone has their own triggers and a lot of them will be obvious but unspoken. Ongoing personality clashes can result in the same disagreement being repeated over and over, and may cause other team members to take sides and sort themselves into cliques. Left unchecked, this behavior can be troublesome for your organization.
Cause #2: Conflicts of Interest
When team members have goals that compete with each other, the pursuit of one goal inevitably will detract from the pursuit of the others. For example, someone may have a strong personal agenda to embellish her own achievements in order to gain career advancement, whereas another may be motivated to serve the best interest of the team regardless of her own self interest. Whenever a group of people work together, there will always be conflicts of interest. Everyone comes to the table with their own agendas, aspirations, egos and goals. Where this becomes anger-inducing, is when personal agendas are not aligned with those of the team.
#3: Mismatched and Uneven Communication
When some team members are dominating the conversation while others sit quietly or cannot get a word in edgewise, tempers invariably will rise. Some personalities talk more than others as a method of showcasing their status ("My ideas are important. Listen to me!"); others do it to brainstorm or to organize their thoughts. Whatever the reason, people who speak over others or constantly interrupt are difficult to tolerate and can cause others to lose focus.
On the other hand, some team members have great ideas but are not comfortable speaking up in larger groups, so they never get a chance to voice them. It can be difficult keeping a team on track with different communication styles. Anger can swell up very quickly if people feel they are not being listened to, or they are unable to separate the speaker from the message.
Here's What To Do
The most important thing is to stay calm! Arguing with an already-angry team is futile. Once tempers grow heated, the first job is to defuse the situation until everyone feels able to tackle the problem more rationally without their emotions getting the best of them. Here are some tips for heading things off before they get out of control:
1. Hold off on the decision making. Decisions made in anger tend to be short-sighted and poor, so agree to defer making any key decisions until everyone has calmed down.
2. De-escalate the situation. Give everyone the space to cool off in their own way by grabbing a coffee, taking a walk, immersing themselves in other projects – whatever it takes to get some headspace. Allow as long as it takes for people to regain control of their emotions. Time should bring a little perspective to the situation.
3. Broaden perspectives. This is tough when your employees are reacting in anger since most people tend to become highly irrational when under stress. But it's important that everyone listens to different perspectives and tries to make sense of why others are acting the way they are. Task the team with questioning their own position and creating an argument from the opposite point of view - just like they would is strategizing what the other side would do in a negotiation. The extra work is worth it as it allows everyone to see the ways in which their colleagues think differently to them, and where others are coming from.
4. Write it down. Have your team write out the things they don't understand, need to clarify, or want to discuss with the other party. Encourage them to leave it overnight then cross out anything that feels petty or irrelevant in the cold light of morning. This exercise minimizes the tendency of some personalities to catastrophize. Things may not be as complicated as they seem when written out this way.
5. Actively listen. Once the anger has run off steam, bring everyone back together to talk about the problem reasonably. Often, an angry person needs only the opportunity to explain how they feel, and have their position acknowledged, to feel better about the situation. Participation is required; everyone should express their opinion to avoid one or two personalities dominating the conversation.
6. Look for a solution. Remind everyone of the goals and objectives they have in common if the conversation strays off topic. Focus the conversation on shared interests rather than who's at fault. This moves the situation from confrontation to problem solving.
7. Be sensitive to others' personality and communication style. It doesn't hurt to train your staff on personality psychology so they can understand what makes different people angry and avoid the full-blown office freak out. For instance, you might administer the Typefinder test, DISC test or another personality assessment tool to help co-workers understand each other and find ways to work together better. Once a Perceiver understands how a Judger thinks about deadlines, for example, he might agree to send an acknowledgement in response to important email messages. Simple changes, born from understanding, can head anger off at the passe and help you all navigate potential trigger situations while remaining calm and cool headed.