What’s the use of anger in the workplace?

Why do we still sometimes try to pretend that we don’t bring all of ourselves to work?  We have emotions because we are human.  Indeed, evolution has left us with a brain that is driven by our emotional responses to our environment.  As much as we pride ourselves on our intelligence and logic, they sit in the passenger seat when we we live through situations with high emotional content.  I once saw a quote that read, “Heaven preserve me from people who pretend they are not vulgar.”  I would adapt that to say, “Heaven preserve me from people who pretend they are not emotional.”

For leaders, one of the emotions that there seems to be most sanction over is workplace anger.  It strikes me that this could be one of the most useful emotions for a leader.  While we don’t want leaders having tantrums all over the place, anger can be a useful indication of something that is not quite right.  Self-actualised leaders will be aware of their anger and be able to give it appropriate expression without damaging reputation or relationships.  After all, it is not the emotion of anger, but the expression of it, which should be moderated at work.

So what use can you make of your anger at work?  At Quantum Shift, when we work with clients, we are most often assisting them to deal with emotionally charged situations and relationships.  Anger is often present.  Working experientially, we ask people to recall a real-life working moment and we explore it in depth with them.  You can try this yourself.  First, recall a recent work situation in which you felt angry.  Now ask yourself these questions:

What needs changing in my system?  Anger can be an sign that all is not right in the world.  It seems completely justified to feel angry about your Senior Management Team demanding better communication from you and your team while keeping you in the dark around matters that directly affect you.  Your anger can mean that the situation needs changing.  Anger can be a catalyst to get us off our behinds and do something about it.  It can indicate something about the relationship with the person needs brought out into the open and rectifying, rather than simmering below the surface.

What does that situation remind me of from my past?  Anger can be telling us that there is something about ourselves that needs healing.  If you have been stirred to anger, ask: “Who was I angry with?”…..then “Who was I REALLY angry with?” or “What was I angry about?”….then “What was I REALLY angry about?”  As we grow in self-awareness, we learn that there are some things from our past that have been left undone.  These may be painful, scary or toxic but as Socrates is quoted as saying, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  Looking at some of these past hurts is the first step to clearing them out so they no longer infect us with the same amount of toxicity.  It is vital that we turn these events and relationships from things which still push our buttons to things that are just stories we tell.  Having a good old clear out will assist us to release our spontaneity, creativity and vitality.

What was the danger or threat?  Anger is part of our evolutionary hard-wiring which fires off when we are under threat.  Were you being undermined in some way?  Was your team or wider organisation being compromised somehow?  Was the CEO blaming members of your team for his or her own failings?  Just as excellent leaders are ambitious for their organisations, excellent leaders also feel on behalf of their organisations or teams.

Left unattended, anger can simmer and become destructive–to ourselves, to our relationships with others or to our wider system.  Whether we like it or not, it will find a way out.  Do we keep such a tight lid on it that it oozes out via a passive-aggressive communication style?  Do we expend so much energy on it to the point that we poison ourselves with chronic stress?

So let’s not misconstrue the notion of ‘controlling our emotions at work’ to mean that we can’t show them at all or that we must behave like emotion-less automotons at work.  With greater self-awareness, we develop emotional regulation, which means we are able to express them in a mature and appropriate fashion.   Authenticity at work is all about being who you are–ALL of you.  We need to embrace all of our emotions, including anger, and become aware of what messages they are trying to send us.  Left ignored, the triggers to those emotions may very well lead to our undoing.


4 thoughts on “What’s the use of anger in the workplace?

  1. Excellent post John! Your post has caused me to really think through the anger issue at work. Anger can be effective if the people around you have trust in you. Anger without trust will likely alienate your coworkers, employees and leaders.

    Kevin Kennemer
    Chief People Officer

    1. Thanks Kevin. I’m with you on that: trusting relationships are certainly essential if we are to feel comfortable expressing ourselves, lest we do or say something that could be career limiting or damage working relationships.


  2. John, another excellent and thought provoking post. This post makes me think of intuition and how anger is part of intuition. Its so important to hone our intuition by learning to pay attention to some of the cues our emotions and physiological experiences give us. So often we explain away these emotions and other gut feelings without taking a closer look to see what is underneath. I love how you look at digging deeper like asking “Who was I angry with?” and then “Who was I REALLY angry with?” to uncover the truths that often get buried. Thanks for the insight and keep up encouraging us all to dig deeper 🙂

    1. Thanks very much Jenn! I’m glad you raise intuition. It’s another one of those aspects of the personal that there is still sometimes suspicion around. As we grow in confidence, we do need to learn to trust our intuition because, while it is an ‘uncountable’, it comes from our emotions and our physiology, as you say, and is sending us really important messages.

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