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 from another person’s incompetence, others will be more accepting of her display of anger.

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.

9 comments

  • "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. "
    News flash Christopher...that works for everyone, male, female,intersex and trangender.
    It's always been my method and continues the principle of playing the ball not the person

    Commenter
    david
    Date and time
    March 04, 2013, 9:33AM
    • there's a big difference between being angry about a situation, and being angry at your colleagues/employees. i know it's partly a stereotype, but women tend to be more plugged into the emotional side of things, including particularly colleagues. this can be an advantage, such as when male bosses ask you to work back after you've just let them know your grandmother died, but it can also be a disadvantage when female bosses like to share their anger around. male bosses are perhaps more likely to quarantine their anger from their workers, which is obviously less offensive to the latter.

      Commenter
      husband of the year
      Location
      melbourne
      Date and time
      March 04, 2013, 10:38AM
      • Theres a basic communication melt down between men and women ,they speak a different semantic although the syntactics are similar.So women misunderstand men and vice versa, but dont know it because they dont communicate the same way.So a male says something, meaning it one way, but the female assumes he means it the way she has interpreted it, and she is infallible, so then when the crunch comes , she spits.Men will just more or less , let it go, blow it off as a misunderstanding.Unless they are bitches.

        Commenter
        Kane
        Date and time
        March 04, 2013, 10:55AM
      • Kane: this is not inherently a gender issue, it's a cultural-group one. There just happens to be difference in upbringing between men and women in our society that contribute to these miscommunications, but it's no different to (for example) a Westerner trying to deal with the differences in cultural and societal communication in Japan.

        Commenter
        DM
        Date and time
        March 04, 2013, 11:43AM
    • "Rather, it’s to say that when it comes to emotions in the workplace, we still have a double standard that straitjackets women." It would be interesting to see what the breakdown was between men and women (70 and 110 respectively surveyed ) who lowered their estimates on the status and competence of the angry women in the interviews. It's been my experience that there are a large number of women who are willing to shoot down other women in the workplace, I wonder if that is indeed a factor.

      As for displaying anger in the workplace, it's not ideal but you should at the very least have a reason for it and hopefully pretty quickly transition to fixing the problem rather than ranting about it.

      Commenter
      Hurrow
      Date and time
      March 04, 2013, 10:42AM
      • It is less acceptable for a woman to get angry than a man. Women are brought up to be 'nice' and 'good girls'. That doesn't mean we don't get angry. We just don't get away with it like men do. I see women get labelled as 'bitches' and "pre-menstrual" when they dare display this feeling. That way the woman doesn't get taken seriously. I see it all the time in all facets of life. It gets really tiresome.

        Commenter
        Mandi
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        March 04, 2013, 12:07PM
        • How can anger be a straitjacket to women and a healthy and productive emotion? You’ve confused yourself by trying to link a pro anger idea to a women’s rights idea.Trying to justify anger is a strange idea.

          I’m just an entry level consultant but I don’t tolerate anger in my office. A senior colleague was acting angry towards myself and others and I made complaints up the chain of command until he was pulled into line. Anger will only be effective as long as we tolerate anger.

          Commenter
          Tom
          Location
          Canberra
          Date and time
          March 04, 2013, 12:49PM
          • Not sure I understand this article. I consider anger to be a useless emotion in the office and it really has no place in a professional setting. If you cannot conduct yourself with decorum you have no business being around other humans!

            People may feel intimidated by people displaying anger and incorrectly assign a greater importance to them, but I don't think this means we should all start scowling and yelling at people in the office.

            My own personal experience is that people who display anger in the office generally get taken aside and told to reign it in or else! There are hardly any situations where overt displays of anger are appropriate and that goes for males and females, the managing director or the receptionist!

            Commenter
            Liv
            Location
            Sydney
            Date and time
            March 04, 2013, 2:59PM
            • my worplace brooding today is both due to a colleagues' incompetance and their demeanour...

              Is it so hard to expect co-workers to have professional ability AND not hassle you about the kind of umbrella you have/your posture/your lack of chattiness.

              I'm paid to work, not to chat. I'm happy to have a quick chat now and then, but if I'm at my desk working -> don't interrupt me point blank. ARGHHHH!!!

              So I've called a meeting with my supervisor's boss. My supervisor's too wrapped up in his own frustrations and is unapproachable.

              *I am female

              Commenter
              k
              Date and time
              March 04, 2013, 4:16PM
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