People are angry on the job these days.

People are angry on the job these days.

by Nina M. Riccio, M.A.’09

  • Whenever the secretary is on vacation, Gwen, a busy, mid-level manager at a large company, is asked by her boss to field the phone calls at the front desk and distribute the mail and paychecks.
  • Rob spent a year of long days and late nights working to promote a family of magazines, only to be told that his entire department was to be let go and the work outsourced.
  • As the only surviving member of what was once a team of four, Janice is expected to single-handedly maintain most of her department’s services.

Welcome to the workplace of 2010, replete with lay-offs, budget cuts, and salary reductions, plus the routine interpersonal interactions that leave a lot of people feeling disrespected, unappreciated … and angry. While emotions are difficult to quantify, it doesn’t take a lot of research to determine that those are all ingredients in a toxic recipe for anger.

Don Gibson“With restructuring and layoffs, people are working harder than ever since productivity is still expected to increase,” said Dr. Donald Gibson, professor of management and chair of the Management Department at Fairfield’s Charles F. Dolan School of Business. The current economic downturn has lent a new immediacy to a subject area that has long interested him; workplace anger – what causes it, how to handle it, and how management might reap some benefits from it.

Our work lives can be sources of both great stress and great reward, continued Dr. Gibson, yet for the most part they are not discussed at the office.

“The central ideology surrounding emotions in organizations is that they are irrational, idiosyncratic disturbances that are best controlled and kept under cover. However, by observing how emotions are expressed and becoming aware of their own and others’ emotional tendencies, managers can increase the chances that their emotions are expressed in ways that enhance individual and organizational effectiveness,” he said.

In other words, not all emotions are negative. Acknowledge and deal with them, and they can lead to some positive changes.

While workplaces vary wildly in their responses to employees’ emotional needs, most have come a long way since pioneering industrialist Henry Ford famously quipped: “Why do I get the whole person, when all I need is a pair of hands?”

Said Dr. Gibson: “What we are learning is that organizations that take into account employee emotions – in the sense of trying to enhance their work experience and contribute to work satisfaction – tend to have better work outcomes.”

Though Dr. Gibson has been ensconced in the relatively polite atmosphere of academia since 1995, teaching “Leadership” and “Managing People for Competitive Advantage,” among other courses, it wasn’t always that way. He spent the first few years of his career in the more volatile entertainment industry, managing post-production work and coordinating motion picture and television distribution for Lorimar Productions.

“The industry had no problem recruiting people, and they worked with the attitude that everyone was replaceable. Managers didn’t have to manage well, and it was a culture that excused outbursts and tantrums,” he said. “It was an interesting place, but I learned more about how not to manage than to manage. The experience made me want to study how to effectively manage people, especially their emotional sides in the workplace.”

He went on to earn a Ph.D. in management from the University of California, Los Angeles, and the bulk of his research since has been in organizational behavior. Over the past two years, for example, he collaborated with Drs. John McCarthy (psychology) and Carl Scheraga (strategy and technology management) on a paper hypothesizing that one source of cultural differences in managerial style is how individuals from different cultures process their language and syntax neurologically. (For a web exclusive story on Fairfield’s research into how native language affects the way people of different cultures make decisions, see our Web extra features.)

Recently, Dr. Gibson was selected by the University as its 2010-2011 Robert E. Wall Faculty Award winner, an honor that will allow him to take a sabbatical in spring 2011 to work on his new book. His prior research has addressed individuals’ emotional lives within organizations, and his new book, tentatively entitled The Sound and the Fury: Understanding Anger in the Workplace, will build upon his recent series of articles on organizational emotions in general and anger in particular.

“The book will reflect a lot of the progress we’ve made regarding the psychology of anger,” said Dr. Gibson, who plans to do extensive interviewing with both managers and employees to tease out their experiences with anger on the job, how it was handled, and the results.

“Managers need to pay attention to their employees’ emotional lives,” he continued. “People need to be asked, ‘Are you feeling angry?’ They need to be able to articulate why they are feeling the way they do.”

The benefit for the company points directly to the bottom line: Dr. Gibson’s previous research shows that the more angry you feel, the less likely you are to put your best effort into the job and the less likely you are to tell an employer that there is a quicker, better way to do your job. These are sins of omission, rather than commission, he explained. On the other hand, validating employees’ emotions can result in positive outcomes – more resources for a department, a workflow adjustment, or the elimination of an unimportant yet time-consuming task, for example.

What, then, is the profile of a productive workplace? An organization that sanctions a bunch of hotheads given to explosive rages is likely to result in a workforce that is defensive and prone to health issues like high blood pressure and depression. But by the same token, a culture that values excessive politeness forces employees to stifle productive encounters that lead to better workflow. From a management point of view, the most productive company culture falls, not surprisingly, somewhere in the middle.

“We find that outcomes are better when anger expressions are of low intensity, expressed verbally rather than physically, and expressed in settings where anger expressions are normatively appropriate,” explained Dr. Gibson. Managers also need to be attuned to other emotional cues, he said.

As an example, he cites the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, a complex case that he uses in class to have students analyze the limitations of quantitative data. In that case, the engineers at Morton Thiokol had done extensive testing on the rocket’s O-rings and determined that they didn’t maintain a proper seal when exposed to cold temperatures. They argued their case but their bosses, under pressure to launch, determined that the data weren’t compelling enough and went ahead with lift off, to tragic results.

“In the culture of NASA, only quantitative evidence was valued,” said Dr. Gibson.

But there’s another kicker: Expressions of anger by women are associated with less positive organizational outcomes than those of men. “Gender is a key variable,” Dr. Gibson noted. “Women feel and express anger at about the same rate that men do, but women are judged more harshly and the consequences are more negative.” In a study using videotapes of angry male and female leaders, women who expressed anger were rated as less effective than women who expressed no emotion. In another study using male and female actors, adults evaluated women as having lower status, lower competence, and deserving lower salaries following anger expressions compared to both women who expressed no emotion or men who expressed anger. Dr. Gibson’s own research backs that up, suggesting that women are rebuked to a greater degree than men when they express anger.

There is some good news: Despite the lengthy economic downturn, incidences of extreme violence in the workplace are not increasing. In fact, work-related homicides are down 51 percent from 1994. (Dr. Gibson is careful to delineate between anger and violence in his research.)

All this research makes interesting reading for executives, but it also has its implications for the classroom.

“I’ll have my MBA students write of an emotional episode and how it was received. It’s an exercise that unleashes some interesting dynamics, such as how their experiences compare,” Dr. Gibson said. He also has students play a game of “emotional charades,” guessing at the emotions registering on a colleague’s face as a way of gauging their own emotional intelligence, and has them draw emotional lessons out of business cases. After all, intuiting someone else’s unspoken emotion helps facilitate communication. “And if they’re going into management, they need to know if emotional intelligence is an area they need to work on.”