Causes of anger at work
The causes of anger can be many-layered, whether at work or elsewhere. The topmost and easily recognisable layer is triggers.
A trigger is the anger flashpoint that ‘makes’ the individual lose control.
Triggers are individual
The precise nature of this flashpoint will vary from person to person.
- Cultural differences may play a part: what one person considers unacceptably bad manners may be acceptable to the other person.
- The trigger may operate at a subconscious level – a particular dialect, expression, hair colour or habit may link back to a childhood incident, so anything that person says or does is likely to pull the trigger.
Triggers have a common structure
Whatever the content that sparks it, anger tends to flare up when we feel
- Trapped or tormented, or that
- Somebody is doing (or intending) us harm or treating us unfairly.
We tend to perceive the cause/person responsible as
- Culpable – malice or recklessness gives us someone to blame
- Simple – one clear direct cause makes it easier to point the finger
- External – ‘It’s not my fault’. We often say someone ‘made us angry’ or we’re angry because of ‘what has happened to me’.
The trigger is frequently
- Immediate – the anger flares immediately after the trigger fires
Cumulative – the ‘last straw’ resulting from lessened tolerance worn away by
- A series of similar incidents, perhaps over weeks, months or years, or
- A shortage of physical or mental reserves induced by, for example, chronic high stress levels, harassment, illness, bereavement, fatigue, illness or substance abuse.
Beneath the layer of immediate triggers, there are several underlying reasons why people, some more than others, tend to lose their tempers.
Violation of personal belief systems
Anger usually arises from someone doing something we think is unfair to us or people we care about, or is ‘plain wrong’. We all have these (sometimes sub-conscious) ground-rules for how things ‘ought’ to be or how people ought to behave. They may be quite big ideals, such as honesty, loyalty, fairness, looking after the underdog, or a host of principles.
For example, workers may become incensed by
- The psychological contract being broken (‘this isn’t what I signed up for’)
- Perceived unfairness (‘why have you got a bigger bonus than me?’)
- Moving of goal posts (‘you asked me to deliver x, but now want me to do it for £y/smaller budget?’)
- Unbounded or compounded change (‘you’re reducing the headcount and we don’t know when you’ll to tell us who’s still got a job’).
Some people seem to anger more easily or quickly than others. Perhaps they learned in their formative years that throwing their weight about got results. Maybe their family’s default response to many events was to yell at each other.
In a different environment, they may instinctively express themselves with a level of energy that others see as anger, but they themselves feel is perfectly normal and acceptable. As one Chief Exec said to me, ‘One man’s bullying is another’s robust management’.
Conversely, others may have been taught not to show anger at all. They’ll tend to suppress it, possibly leading to ailments such as high blood pressure or to an explosion somewhere down the line about something apparently unconnected.
Personal recent experience
Any of us may show a change in tolerance level. Possible catalysts for these differences include stress, tiredness, worry, substance abuse, hangover (from sugar-rush or alcohol), hunger (for example, skipping lunch), bullying, harassment, physical pain, or domestic/financial problems. When facing unusual angry responses, it may be worth looking out for signs of such factors in the background, and doing something about them, once you have managed the incident which apparently sparked the anger in the first place.
You might like to visit the topics on Bereavement, Stress, Change, and Communicating Change. If someone shows signs of unacceptable behaviour change involving displays of anger, you may want to think about potential issues regarding Drugs and Alcohol or Bullying, which might lead you into Performance Management issues, possibly Discipline and Grievance, and even Dismissal. You may also find useful information in the topics on, Transactional Analysis, Personal Energy, Mental Toughness and Emotional Intelligence.