You Don’t Have to Get Mad to Work Here … Anger at Work

As I once wise-cracked in one particularly irritating office situation, “There’s no need to drive me mad: I can walk that far”. Yes, humour is one way of handling anger in the workplace (although it’s much less patronising when your own anger is the target of the witticism). Less wittily, anger management is deeply entwined in Emotional Intelligence – a factor of adult life that became so important in the 1990s that it sprouted capital letters. Either a new – albeit debated – discipline had been born, or more of us had found more things to be angry about.

Although I’d thought in my younger days that (self-)righteous anger was the preserve of Young Turks, whatever their actual nationality, a cursory glance at the contemporary world does suggest that rage is … all the rage. Air rage, road rage and all their relatives are becoming a commonplace. 10 years ago, I might have wondered if “pet peeves” were something you might buy for the cat; in 2009, the expression is a cliché.

It’s hard to tell if the blogosphere is helping us get life off our chests or just setting a bad example: here are one or two random examples where you can try to decide. (Caution: some bad language is used: intemperance is as intemperance does.)

Maybe it’s part of the condition of modern life: we are attempting to live at too great a velocity, bombarded with the explicit expectations of bosses, peers, partners, family and friends as well as the implicit ones of the advertising industry’s incessant aspirational chatter. Life demands of us, so we over-demand of it. Some of us even occasionally rant along the lines of “I know my rights” – an assertation that one lawyer friend has confessed forces her to remain silent for fear that contradicting them might lead to a black eye.

If this argument does hold water, ‘modern life’ has been going on for more centuries than we realise. Alain de Botton – who we’ve discussed before – looks at anger in his book, The Consolations of Philosophy. More precisely, for those angered by inaccuracies, he looks at frustration and at the Greek philosopher Seneca’s advice on avoiding it. For Seneca – and de Botton – anger:

[…] results not from an uncontrollable eruption of the passions, but from a basic (and correctable) error of reasoning. […] it can only break out on the back of certain rationally held ideas; if we can only change the ideas, we will change our propensity to anger.

And in the Senecan view what makes us angry are dangerously optimistic notions about what the world and other people are like.”

Botton summarises, or concludes, one section of the book with what reads as an attempt to summarise the Senecan view in a single sentence:

We will cease to be so angry once we cease to be so hopeful.”

As aphoristic statements go, I have to say that very nearly got my proverbial goat before I thought a little more deeply. What Seneca is saying is that to manage our anger – by managing our frustration – we must manage our expectations. What can’t be changed must be accepted, and we should focus our energies on those areas of our lives that will not lead inexorably to dissatisfaction. The answer to not getting mad is neither to get even nor (delicious as Ivana Trump’s quote was) to get everything, but to get real.

The eternal human ‘problem’ of anger has been wrestled with by many a philosopher or religious figure, all of whom seem to preach caution:

Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.”
Buddha

When anger rises, think of the consequences.”
Confucious

Anger and intolerance are the twin enemies of correct understanding.”
Mahatma Gandhi

Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.”
Ambrose Bierce

But where does that get us? How do we instil hope – and the desire to change things – in others without setting them up to be frustrated? And angry with or at us as a result? It seems that – just like the things that frustrate us – anger itself is something we must accept and live with as constructively and positively as we can.

How we handle anger may depend on how we think about it, which is an area that is ripe with potential misconceptions – have a look at one list of Things that surprise anger management clients. (And there is a painfully human irony about having undue expectations of anger management.)

But it does strike me that anger has a range of antonyms – it is variously the opposite of happiness, peace, calm and contentment. Yet is also a flipside of complacency. Some things in business – and in life – deserve our anger and deserve the action that our anger can motivate. Two unlikely bedfellows might agree with that viewpoint, so let’s finish with a quote and a song – and a pointed reminder that ‘anger is an energy’:

Anybody can become angry, that is easy; but to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way, that is not within everybody’s power, that is not easy.”
Aristotle

Comments (3)
  • Cliff Peat

    June 24, 2009

    When I first read de Botton’s account of Seneca’s insight into the nature of anger I recognised immediately its truth – and since then I have often laughed at myself when the anger “impulse” rises and – sometimes, wistfully – after I have given in to it.

    Coming to grips with the fact that one is dissatisfied but that the emotional response is ineffectual is a salutary experience. But as you have pointed out it can be a driver for improvement and innovation.

    I read somewhere that irascible people live longer than the meek and humble – perhaps “15 love” to “anger” then.

    But what struck me about your thoughtful post was the quote from Aristotle – in which he seemed to be suggesting that an inate emotion be controlled – or at least that it is controllable as a tool. I would suggest that this is cynical and really not the emotion “anger” at all but some form of role play or negotiation tactic.

    I took articles (ho hum! – over 30 then!) with an apparently irascible chartered accountant who could turn “anger” on like a tap and won many a battle with County Councillors and Tax Inspectors and no doubt others on the numerous committees he graced using this ability.

    Were Aristotle at the proverbial dinner party he would no doubt argue me out of this interpretation of his words – but humbly I submit them to the discussion.

    • don't compromise

      June 25, 2009

      Pausing only to confess that the first thing that went through my mind at the thought of Aristotle at a dinner party was Monty Python’s “The Philosopher’s Song” (yes, I’m over 30 too …), an interesting interpretation and food for thought for me – for which many thanks.

      My interpretation of Aristotle (hence the ‘twinning’ with the PiL song and it’s “Anger is an energy” refrain) was that he was commenting on the rareness of the ability to channel the energy of anger to a positive end. I read that as a Classical Greek equivalent of what we sometimes know call Emotional Intelligence (which I admit that I personally find a nauseating phrase), where the focus should be pretty much that – not denying, burying or faking our emotions, but acknowledging them and their veracity – and then trying to use their energy for positive effect. (Like a lot of things in life, this is also basically a smartly turned out version of what my Gran would have called Common Sense, but that’s a whole separate posting!)

      My reading of your interpretation of Aristotle is that you read him as meaning something closer to that quote (usually linked to Mrs Thatcher, although Googling didn’t seem to explain the knee-jerk linkage that goes on between my ears) about “if you can fake sincerity”. Which I suspect – with all due deference and respect – would make you the cynic, rather than Aristotle?

      To me the difference between the two is the difference between righteousness (harnessing the power of a genuine emotion to power a passion to achieve a goal or aim) and something more like preciousness. It certainly makes me realise that – at least in the context of work – ‘performance’ is a very ambiguous word: are we applauded for what we achieve or for the quality of our renditions of our party pieces? It depends what we teach, incentivise, reward and encourage of course, but I’d like to think it’s more the former than the latter. (How many times have you had letters or emails from someone who signs themself “Acting Manager” without even a hint that they realise how that might be (mis)interpreted?)

      It’ll be hard to ultimately settle the Aristotle debate without a bottle or two of Greek red and a spiritual medium, but it looks like there are several linked questions that have plenty of mileage among the living!

  • Pingback: Guest book review: Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work « Don’t Compromise!

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