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February 17, 2000

Angry in the office?

Your boss is unfair. You can't stand some of the people in your office. You're constantly under deadline pressures. You feel stressed out. Stress leads to anger, which can lead to health-threatening anxiety. What should you do?

Start by cultivating your "emotional intelligence," advises Clifford Cohen. "Most employees are more than intelligent enough to handle the mechanics of their jobs, but some make errors in judgment in their workplace relationships," says Cohen, an employee assistance program (EAP) specialist at Pitt's Faculty and Staff Assistance Program.

In addition to counseling employees, Cohen leads a Human Resources workshop, "Anger in the Workplace," which offers tips on improving work relationships and managing stress.

If you're feeling angry, frustrated or depressed at work, you're not alone. The Faculty and Staff Assistance Program saw 3.67 percent of Pitt's employee population last year for at least one counseling session. Of that number, 10-20 percent had no specific problem. "They're more frustrated," Cohen says. "They just can't handle the workplace."

That's where emotional intelligence comes in. Utilizing skills such as delaying immediate gratification for a greater reward later, judging when and with whom it is appropriate to share personal problems, handling relationships with different personalities and being self-aware enough to handle stress thoughtfully all can help keep the anger level down.

Cohen says employees too often will take their anger to Human Resources before trying other reasonable avenues, including talking it out in private with the supervisor or consulting trusted colleagues or friends.

Angry people often isolate themselves. Isolation can lead to self-consciousness and anxiety, which is a reaction to an unspecified, sometimes unreal, cause, Cohen says. Making an effort to be civil with co-workers, what Cohen calls "social lubrication," is a must. Common greetings — 'Good morning'; 'How was your weekend?' — need to be said, Cohen maintains. "It doesn't matter if you hate your work peer, you can still be effective work partners. But you must be civil. You must interact. Cultivate yourself as a team player. Be interested in others' success at work, because that affects you."

Communication skills are important, too. "Listen attentively," Cohen recommends. "Don't interrupt. Learn to disagree and respect more than one opinion. Ask for opinions. Not everything is black and white. Use 'I heard you statements': 'I understand what you're saying, but can I suggest….'"

Constant arguing with peers will be viewed negatively by management, which has a bottom-line interest in employee behavior. "Arguing, even if you're in the right, means time taken away from completing tasks, which is what management is most concerned about."

Sharing your concerns with a supervisor thoughtfully, not emotionally, is very important, Cohen says. Address what you feel to be unfair in terms of a specific issue, rather than a blanket statement like, "I don't like working here because…."

The most common source of stress at work is improperly responding to criticism, Cohen says. "Don't be impetuous in your response. Don't be a verbal counter-puncher. Two very underutilized words are 'oh' and 'okay.' I tell employees they should expect criticism at work. Work really is a place for criticism. Don't be shocked. Don't say, 'Do you believe she said that to me?' Well, yes, I do. What are employee evaluations for? No one is perfect."

Cohen says the key is to recognize that being criticized in one instance is a small part of your overall performance. Criticism also can lead to personal growth in the workplace and even career advancement if it's recognized, absorbed and incorporated. Cohen says employees who take criticism well are often valued more by managers. For an employee to have a "You have to take me as I am" attitude is counterproductive, he says.

"If you do not agree with the criticism, you should make an attempt to talk it out with the manager privately. My best piece of advice is to try to be respectfully puzzled: 'I was told to do this and I tried, but now I'm being criticized and I'm puzzled. Could you explain it again?'

The most common thing I hear is 'I can't talk to my boss.' Well, have you tried? You can't read minds. Maybe the boss is a bully. But even a bully can smell fear. Maybe the boss wants you to argue with him or her. Not being disrespectful, but learning to disagree in a civil manner can be very useful. You may end up having to say, 'I disagree with you, but I will do my best to support you in this.' But, then, there's usually mutual respect. Bosses are human, too."

Cohen also recommends picking your battles carefully. If a situation is trivial or annoying, just let it go. If it becomes distressing, critical or threatening, a response may be needed.

If the criticism is unjustified and continual, the employee should meet with the supervisor and ask for suggestions or solutions. "Eventually, both of you have to get past the criticism and find an agreeable path toward a solution."

There are occasions when a solution is not found at the worker/manager level and counseling may be appropriate. "That's what the Faculty and Staff Assistance Program is for," Cohen says.

It's important to recognize that your boss is not your therapist or your spouse, he says. Managers should be empathetic, even caring, but it isn't their job to solve your personal problems.

"Your role at work is completely different from home. Rather than saying, 'I'm stressed out because I'm working too many hours. I can't sleep. I'm on Prozac,' you should soften it to 'I need to spend more time at home with the kids.' Remember, at home you're expected to be a whole person, but at work you were hired to do a job, not to be a whole person."

Cohen says learning to understand your manager is very useful. "Does he like to be consulted? Does she prefer you work out situations independently? Does he like to be kept informed at all stages? Ask your colleagues what has worked for them."

Managers, for their part, need to be sensitive to employees' concerns, Cohen says. "The absolute most important thing to an employee is that he or she is respected in the workplace. Managers need to compliment and value the workers."

A common problem for managers is that, in cases of unequal work performance, the better performer is often given more work and the poorer one is allowed to slide. "The ironic part of that is that eventually you'll drive away the better employee. Instead, managers should be tougher on the poorer workers than they usually are."

Cohen says there probably isn't enough training for managers at Pitt. "Another point is that managers here often have duties other than being managers and may not have the time to devote to it."

According to Cohen, potential for stress at work is always there, but stress can be avoided by controlling one's perception of the potential causes. "There's that line in Shakespeare: 'There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.' Be reflective. Keep your thinking rational and positive. Say, 'What am I getting upset at? Things could be worse.'"

The only universally accepted stress reducer is exercise, Cohen says. But other things work for some people, like deep breathing, soaking in a tub, or prayer. "It's also important to have a rich life outside of work. The best-adjusted workers have a life other than at work. If you can leave work, go to a movie, have a social life, it takes the emphasis off work-related stress."

Stress, anger and anxiety in the workplace have biological ramifications. "Going back to Cro-Magnon man fighting the saber-toothed tiger: That was anger that protected us. It caused biological responses: increased heart rate to pump blood faster; digestion stopping and blood leaving the head, hands and feet to divert blood to the large muscles; increased blood coagulation to minimize blood loss during injury; releasing sugar into the blood for more energy. But the tiger would eventually go away. Today, our anger can kill us: The long-term effects of those same physical reactions include high blood pressure, increased chance of stroke, fatigue and others. Anger with anxiety may not abate," Cohen says.

"But it's a myth that denial of stress leads to depression. It is also a myth that anger is depression turned inwards. There really is no evidence to support that. Depressed people can get angry. People who are not angry can be depressed. It's good to know you're angry while it is happening. But venting it emotionally, rather than thoughtfully, is not useful."

There also is a myth about self-esteem, Cohen says. Schools have been emphasizing self-esteem to adolescents for decades, but sometimes the effect is not the desired one. "Students will act out if they have too much self-esteem. They'll feel they're entitled to do whatever they want. Underachievement doesn't bother them. Their competitive functions are poorly developed, and this hurts them later in the workplace. I know lots of people with relatively low self-esteem who are satisfied with their life, make good decisions, like their job and are not depressed. A better measure for success at work are emotional intelligence factors."

Cohen says the effort to control anger and minimize the effect of stress is a worthy cause. "Harmony in the work place allows informal networks to form that can help in responding to unanticipated problems."

But it can be difficult, Cohen says. "As Aristotle wrote more than 2,300 years ago: 'Anyone can be angry. That is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose and in the right way — this is not easy.'"

–Peter Hart

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