Julian Hall: Dealing with angry employees

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We all get angry, that’s fact. How we deal with that anger is often very different. Expressing anger appropriately in the workplace is vital for a safe, secure and productive environment, unfortunately that doesn’t always happen and it’s left to managers or the HR team to deal with the angry employee, as well as the (often) lasting impact on their team or victim. Anger can also be expressed in a variety of different ways and it’s not always the most well recognised form that leaves the most scars.

The type of angry behaviour we recognise as angry is aggressive behaviour, where a person will shout, throw things, slam doors and take other actions that intimidate and make others fearful, even though perpetrators will often justify their behaviour by complaining that they are the only people being ‘honest’.

In workplaces this type of anger is rarely found as individuals know that this will not be tolerated. Any person behaving in this way provides clear – and loud – evidence of what they are doing and evidence gathering is a relatively straightforward process. The solutions are also easily identifiable too, from gross misconduct to anger management counselling, and the ability of victims and the workplace to get the behaviour recognised and dealt with.

The real challenge for HR teams is to deal with less obvious anger

The real challenge for HR teams is to deal with less obvious anger. Passive aggressive behaviour, for example, which can be extremely damaging for any business in terms of productivity, morale and culture. Passive aggression is the most common or popular way of expressing ourselves in the workplace – it takes a degree of intelligence to communicate passively aggressively and an even greater level of emotional intelligence to interpret it.

Passive aggressive behaviour can take all sorts of forms including sarcasm, withholding support, ‘backstabbing’ and ‘bitchiness’, and relies upon a level of emotional intelligence in others to interpret.  The individuals are honest about what they want to themselves, however, not to others and employ a range of subtle and underhand techniques to achieve their aims.

HR teams are usually equipped with this emotional intelligence, however, in order for the HR team to be involved, individuals in the workplace are going to have to take three steps – recognising the behaviour, recording the behaviour and reporting the behaviour before an HR team is going to be able to start investigating any allegations.

Passive behaviour is also a tricky anger style to address. Characterised by not expressing how we feel and what we want (or being honest about it), passive behaviour expects others to magically interpret what we are feeling and wanting without being clear about what we really want. It’s a position of powerlessness but assumed powerlessness.  It starts from a point of view that by simply complying with what others want, in the end we get what we want. Not expressing any feelings, needs or wants is not a very productive position to take simply because it expects the rest of the world to understand fully their needs based on very limited information.

Combatting passive aggressive and passive behaviours is likely to be a challenge in any British workplace and this the embedded issues often stem either from a company having written policies that are rarely enforced, or one where there is a culture of perceived honesty – i.e. where people say that they are honest, but are not, and where honesty is encouraged but in reality, honesty is rarely rewarded.

The key elements in all forms of anger behaviour are emotional intelligence and honesty and they work as outlined in the matrix below.

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In an ideal world, what workplaces need is a fusion of honesty and emotional intelligence. Only when people are truly assertive and can express their feelings in a healthy manner, will the workplace be safe from anger.

Being honest can be a painful experience for many

The requirement to acknowledge that they have these, often uncomfortable, feelings can be a painful experience for many. It requires them to be honest with the people they work with and, crucially, honest with themselves. They have to acknowledge that they have these feelings and that they are damaging themselves with them, or damaging others with them, is unacceptable.

Assertive anger is the ultimate combination of honesty and intelligence because it means that they own up to their part in the process. Individuals shouldn’t make themselves a victim and they shouldn’t create victims. They will use the skills they have to express feelings whilst also empowering others to own their feelings, and have no need to own their own.

So how can HR specialists tackle anger? Firstly be realistic. Ask: How highly is honesty valued in your workplace and how often is it combined with emotional intelligence to create a culture where freedom to express and respect enhances creativity and productivity? What sort of hill – or mountain – will you have to climb?

Secondly, supported by the knowledge of HR specialists, companies need to identify the types of the behaviours they would like to encourage and those that they do not. This identification could take several guises, for example, through contracts of agreements, value statements or the dexterous use of policies on bullying and harassment. This should be an all-encompassing strategic exercise – although the HR team may want to identify specific teams as a tactical measure to focus more attention on.

Setting boundaries like these enables the individuals concerned to be challenged by managers, HR or victims and for some form of facilitated open, authentic conversation to take place and ensuring that key reasons for any individual’s anger are explored – self-esteem, fear, stress – the list goes on!

Thirdly, it’s worth noting that employers should be compassionate towards an angry employee. Most people do not set out to be abusive or underhand, or to behave in any other angry way. The chances are they are scared or hurt or both and it’s being acted out as anger. This said, the employee needs to be held to account for their behaviour, whilst being given a chance to change of course.

However, what you’ll never prevent is anger itself so what we have to learn as human beings, and what we have to share as HR specialists, is that you can’t stop anger so you need to embrace it, learn how to deal with it and use it to grow your working relationships and make yourself more productive.

Here at Calm People we encourage healthy assertive angry workplaces. Where anyone can respectfully and calmly clear the air with anyone. Where disagreements and misunderstandings are nipped in the bud before they become long running grudges and conflicts.

Julian Hall is an anger, emotional resilience and stress expert and MD of Calm People.

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  1. Anger is not an entitlement but a privilege for all employees. It must however be exercised carefully and intelligently. Its treament by all that it affects has to be equally user-friendly at all times. All of us have to be mindful of doing to others as we would like them to do to us.

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