Coming out of lockdown, continuing or not to remote work and (re)building team dynamics are bringing a new lot of unanticipated deep issues to address. I’ve been hearing recently a lot of questions from managers about how to deal with people’s anger. The lockdown period has created unbalances that many perceive as unfair, hence creating resentment and anger. Colleagues feel injustice between the ones who worked really hard and the ones who did not for lack of means to remote work. Teams are angry and managers unprepared. So I decided to write this article to share some practical insights for managers on how to deal with their team member(s)’ anger.

Because it can be really hard to be on the receiving end of such emotional expression. Also as managers you feel the weight of the responsibility to deal with it, to protect other team members, to protect people from themselves, to protect the company’s best interest, its image, its bottom line. Well you feel you are responsible for your team’s HULK-like behaviors.

Emotions and their expressions at work

Violent behaviours are unacceptable at work (well anywhere actually).

If some expressions of anger can be hot and very visible or easy to recognize, some can be cold, like passive aggressive comments. So you also need to watch out for these less obvious forms of anger in the teams, as they need to be addressed too.

While angry behaviours are not acceptable, anger (the emotion) still has a place, it can be very legitimate to feel it. Because anger, like other emotions, has the purpose of alerting you to a need that is not being fulfilled.

Anger is triggered by an evaluation of injustice or unbalance, the world is not as it should be (in our value system), there is something wrong here. So anger becomes energy for change, energy to power actions to move people, to overcome obstacles, to break rules, to change society, to innovate.

The chemistry of anger if a lot of upward and outward energy, with a big reservoir of it to last until the change has happened. 

Now, expressions of fear and anger can often look similar. A fear with its fight reaction to danger might ressemble a violent anger. Side note, men tend to look angry when they are actually scared ;o)

Anyway, you need to know which emotions are present if you want to address them more efficiently and elegantly.

Here are a few differences to identify them:

  • Anger, on the other hand, talks about injustice, unfairness, the world as it “should” be, what people deserve, equity, and what should change. Here you will feel the person has a strong sense of unhappiness about the situation, dissatisfaction, the fist is slammed on the table or in the air. There is expansion.

You may not always be able to tell the difference as people have also their own way to expressing emotions, and they might feel both emotions at the same time too, but you ought to try, and here’s how.

Dealing with other people’s anger

I recommend using Non-Violent Communication (NVC) as a basis for questioning your team and get to the root cause of their anger, so you can understand why they perceive an unfairness or injustice in a certain situation.

“NVC” can be simply used with 4 questions:

  1. Observation: What did you observe in this situation? (ask for the facts that seem to trigger the team members);
  2. Feelings: What do you feel about this? (encourage the use of emotional vocabulary “anger” “frustration” “unhappy” etc.);
  3. Needs: What do you need? (elicit the team’s values and universal human needs that were affected in this situation: belonging, fairness, support, recognition etc.)
  4. Request: What do you want me to do? (start the dialogue about realistic actions in your perimeter that would satisfy the mentioned needs).

Why it works:

  1. This will show that you care, and are listening, and will at the same time ease their emotional state. Most emotions tend to grow in intensity when they are not heard.
  2. Then it starts the solution co-construction process. Trying to find solutions without addressing the emotions tend to only superficially solve the situation (band aid on a huge open wound).
  3. Also it allows people to release unnecessary anger when it is  based on wrong or obsolete information, as you get a chance to correct data (facts). 
  4. And finally helping teams realize what is outside of their and your zone of influence can help them towards the acceptance of situations that cannot be changed. 

Ok so I want to finish with you. Yes with YOUR anger. Because (a) as a manager you are a role model for your teams, and (b) chances are, whether you admit it or not, you are feeling some degree or form of anger too.

Ask yourself this: What makes you angry, frustrated, unhappy at work? What is your evaluation or judgement of other people’s anger? How do you express it and address it? What impact does your expression of anger have on your team?

In summary…

  1. As managers you have to address your team’s emotions;
  2. Any form of violence is unacceptable at work;
  3. Listen to the message of their anger;
  4. Check if aggression comes from anger or fear;
  5. Use Non-Violent Communication to start a dialogue;
  6. Look at yourself, check your own emotional state.