Being angry at work

Meryl Streep in <i>The Devil Wears Prada</i> ... new research shows that if a woman makes it clear that her anger stems ...

Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada ... new research shows that if a woman makes it clear that her anger stems from another person’s incompetence, others will be more accepting of her display of anger.

A happy worker is a productive worker. 

It’s one of those management factoids that we’re regularly bombarded with. According to the Wall Street Journal, happy employees are "36 per cent more motivated, 31 per cent more successful in achieving their goals, and 33 per cent more likely to assist their co-workers when compared with their unhappy counterpart". 

And it may well be true. But is happiness always the best policy when it comes to furthering your career?

Take Rob, for example, a management consultant whose job requires him to be both personable and highly competent. Rob is by his own admission a "high energy person". He’s one of those instantly likeable people who’s thoughtful and witty. 


But his cheery demeanour hasn’t always been appreciated by his colleagues. 

"Early in my consulting days, I met a colleague at a networking meeting", Rob says.

"He gave some feedback to a mutual colleague which was 'Yeah, Rob’s great, but one problem: he smiles too much.'"

Another colleague Rob worked with on a large, stressful job, jokingly "banned" him from consuming any more than one coffee per day because he was too up and on. 

Smiling and happiness, of course, aren’t the same things. Smiling for your wedding photos is fine, but it’s not so good if you’re in a meeting with a client trying to explain why their project that was supposed to be finished two years ago is still in the planning phase and hemorrhaging money. It may be that Rob is one of those "indiscriminate smilers": someone who grins when a grimace would be more appropriate. 

But, chatting to Rob over coffee, he doesn’t come across that way at all. He’s emotionally intelligent enough to have grasped the elementary point that smiling is appropriate in some contexts and not in others. 

As Rob himself observes, "The Joker smiles a lot, but that’s not necessarily a good thing".

Moreover, there’s little to suggest that his behaviour was out of place on the occasion when he was said to have "smiled too much". In fact, on the occasion when Rob was told he smiled too much, he says he was simply mirroring the behavior of the person with whom he was speaking. 

While Rob is adamant that the frowns from some of his colleagues about his happy disposition haven’t hurt his career one bit, his experience lends support to the research that suggests that, in professional settings at least, overt displays of happiness aren’t always the best policy. 

In fact, displaying anger might put you on the fast track to the board room. Research shows that anger is a privilege granted to those who already possess status and power. Some psychologists refer to anger as a "status emotion": the higher up a person is in a professional or personal pecking order, the more leeway they have to show anger. 

If you’ve ever worked in an office with a bad tempered boss, you already know this. While your boss can stomp around in a foul mood swearing like a trooper, you have to be pleasant. Not only are people with high status and power accorded the right to display anger, research suggests that such displays help to cement their high position in the pecking order. 

A study that appeared in a 2008 issue of Psychological Science found that people who displayed anger in the workplace were regarded as more competent and had higher status than those who were emotionally neutral. 

In the study, 180 study participants (70 men and 110 women) watched one of eight videos of job interviews and were asked to rate their perceptions of the job candidate. At the beginning of the videoed interviews, the job candidate provided their occupation. In some, the candidates said they were chief executives while in others they claimed to be lowly assistant trainees. During the course of the interview, the job candidate was asked about an incident in which they and a colleague had lost an important account. 

Some job candidates affected to be angry about losing the account. In others, the matter of the lost account was raised, but the job candidate was not asked to expand on how they felt about it, and so remained emotionally neutral. 

After watching the interviews, the 180 people were asked to rank the interview candidates’ competence, their status, their salary and whether they regarded the person as "in control" or "out of control". While angry CEOs were judged to earn less than their emotionally neutral peers ($US66,434 versus $US82,368), they were regarded as having higher status and to be more competent than CEOs who showed no emotion. 

And the perceptions of competence and high status weren’t confined to CEOs. It turns out that anger can even work in favour of more junior workers. Angry assistant trainees were also regarded as having higher status and to be slightly more competent than assistant trainees who showed no emotion. 

Some psychologists suggest that those who display anger are perceived by others to possess special insights and knowledge about particular matters or issues. Since people often express anger when things go wrong, angry people are perceived as having a keen nose for when things are amiss. 

As Larissa Tiedens puts it in a 2001 article that appeared in the Journal of Personality and Psychology, "Expressions of anger create the perception that the expresser is competent, and status is conferred on the basis of perceived competence". 

There’s just one catch: anger only increases the appearance of competence and status if you’re a man. If you’re a woman, showing that you’re angry is likely to dent other people’s estimations of your abilities. 

In fact, in the study of videoed interviews, the female assistant trainees who were emotionally neutral throughout the job interviews were perceived to earn more than the angry female CEOs. Female assistant trainees who showed no emotion were judged to earn $56,318 per year, compared to angry female CEOs who were judged to earn just $42,526 per year. 

To some extent, women can reduce negative perceptions of anger if they give reasons about why they are angry. If a woman makes clear that her anger stems from another person’s incompetence, for example, then others are more accepting of her display of anger. 

But does all of this mean that expressing happiness is bad for your career? Not necessarily. This particular study only looked at anger versus showing no emotion at all or expressing sadness, rather than looking at anger versus happiness. 

The point here isn’t to defend anger for anger’s sake. Nor is it to suggest that flying into a Hitler-in-the-bunker style fury every time you feel you’ve been personally slighted is an effective or desirable way to solve problems or get what you want. 

Rather, it’s to say that when it comes to emotions in the workplace, we still have a double standard that straitjackets women. But in the right dose, and directed against the right target — and with reason — anger can be a healthy and productive emotion.