By Marty Brenner, C.C.D.C. #104227

The smallest show of support from a manager is a significant source for positive change in the workplace. According to a recent study performed by the Temple University’s Fox School of Business in Philadelphia, compassion is the more effective response to employee’s anger when compared with punishing the worker for speaking out. Researchers found that inappropriate responses to outbursts, like reprimanding or firing the worker, actually divert time and resources away from the underlying issue that prompted the deviant behavior in the first place. The study, published in the journal Human Relations, suggests expanding current guidelines on anger in the workplace to allow managers and co-workers to show compassion and support for the upset employee in a way that causes effective and positive changes in the workplace.

The Temple University study included 194 people who had witnessed an angry outburst in the workplace. Researchers found no connection between firing the employee and resolving underlying problems at the workplace. Study participants further reported that sanctions against the employee or, worse yet, doing nothing at all does not promote positive changes. These improper reactions to deviant anger can actually worsen problems in the workplace, in that they divert focus from the underlying issue onto the frustrated worker. This places the emotionally-charged employee in a defensive position that, if handled poorly, can escalate the situation instead of improving it.

Co-workers and subordinates observe both the person having the angry outbursts and the administrator responding to the situation. A co-worker might decide to repress or mute anger if she perceives the manager’s response as uncompassionate or unsupportive. The supervisor who reacts to deviant anger in a caring and reasonable manner will not only diffuse the emotionally charged situation but will also foster a calm and efficient workplace in general because employees will be less fearful to express their thoughts and feelings.

Researchers noted there are several types of anger expression common to the workplace and that some types of anger expression lead to more positive change than others. Deviant anger, which is described as physical acts, intense verbal displays and inappropriate communications, is different than repressed anger in which a person does not express his thoughts or emotions about a particularly upsetting situation. The study notes that area between deviant and suppressed anger seems to be the most fertile ground for effective and positive change in the workplace. Muted anger, expressed only to co-workers or outsiders without power to change the situation, is the least effective means of causing positive change in the workplace. It is up to the manager or supervisor to recognize signs of the various types of anger amongst her workforce so that she can foster healthy anger and address muted anger.

Dr. Deanna Geddes, chair of the Fox School’s Human Resource Management Department, and her cohorts found that even one small act of support by a manager or co-worker to the angry employee can improve workplace tension. Business codes and workplace guidelines dealing with anger should expand to allow co-workers or managers to express compassion and understanding as a way to improve the circumstance that initiated the outburst. Once the co-worker or manager calms the emotional storm, the employee will more easily articulate the problem that caused so much angst. A superior manager builds trust by showing compassion and expressing support for issues that the employee feels so passionately.

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