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Anger and Work

24 Mar Posted by in Observations | 3 comments
Anger and Work

A colleague noted yesterday (as I write) that he hadn’t seen me get angry very often, during the many years now that he and I have worked together. I think that’s a correct statement, though of course I’m open to correction from others (and I don’t mean that there haven’t been a few occasions). I was reminded of a question a Dean asked me during my job interview at Mason, where I also responded that I didn’t anger often, to which he replied, quite reasonably, by wondering whether one shouldn’t indulge the emotion a bit more often. (It turned out that he did so, though never with me, with results that could cause some concern.)

This is not, I hasten to add, a column about my emotional life, which would be presumptuous and probably dull, but rather about the anger topic itself. As some of you know, I first cut my teeth in the history of emotions field by writing about anger, with considerable focus on the growing efforts that developed in the United States from the 1920s onward to make anger at work an unfashionable, blameworthy expression. The results have been important—one of the passages of Robert Reich’s autobiography that I valued was his note about being advised never to show anger in Washington—and I think they continue in the main.

But the anger control emphasis has its weaknesses. In my case, I think the most obvious downside is an occasional (sometimes more than occasional) need to vent—not to get angry outright but to tell somehow why I would have liked to. I have, and cherish, a couple of colleagues whom I can burden in this way, and of course my wife puts up with me (usually; sometimes she quite properly tells me to get over it). Another downside is a certain vulnerability in the face of overbearing interlocutors, who do use anger more aggressively. I don’t think one has to yield unduly in such passages, but there are some clear tensions stylistically as well as substantively.

Happily, at Mason I have not faced the worst downside, but I encountered it at a previous institution: a boss who welcomes the opportunity to insist that subordinates keep cool while indulging in rants of his own. Too much meekness can exacerbate workplace inequalities that are not good for the job and certainly no fun for the subordinate.

The main point, which I do value, is to have the opportunity every so often to think about work and anger and to make some conscious choices about preferred styles—for oneself, and in terms of encountering others. The workplace anger that must be most consistently reproved involves that directed against staff colleagues lower in rank (sometimes with a gender factor tossed in as well). We see this at Mason periodically, as elsewhere, and I fully subscribe to the anti-bullying concerns that seek to keep the problem in check.

Beyond this, however, there are some options. And this brings me back to my initial musings: I do wonder whether I should let myself be openly annoyed a bit more often, as part of establishing positions I find important. I actually doubt I can change styles at this point, and by this point in my career I actually don’t like the sensation of being angry at work (as opposed to experiencing the emotion when driving, watching sports events, or listening to politicians, where a certain level of anger is clearly fun). But whatever the personal decision about effective style, the subject is interesting. We have clear varieties in anger usage among certain units at Mason, as at any big institution that is not rigorously hierarchical. Again, some thoughtful contemplation of usages and avoidances adds spice to the management game. Awareness—of one’s own anger approach and that of others—surely remains a component of leadership.