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Angry at work? It’s affecting all your decisions…

Jan 17, 2011 Business Daily, Leadership

“A study conducted by Jennifer S. Lerner with Julie H. Goldberg of the University of Illinois and Philip E. Tetlock of UC Berkeley documented the psychological effects of residual anger. The study found that people who saw an anger-inducing video of a boy being bullied were then more punitive toward defendants in a series of unrelated fictional tort cases involving negligence and injury than were people who had seen a neutral video—unless they were told that they’d be held accountable and would be asked to explain their decisions to an expert whose views they didn’t know. After watching the bullying video, the subjects in this accountable group were every bit as angry as the others, yet they judged the defendants’ behavior less harshly.”

Jennifer S. Lerner and Katherine Shonk, Harvard Business Review (September 2010)

Happens to all of us, doesn’t it? On the way to work, the usual imbeciles on the road cut in front of you, nearly causing an accident. More imbeciles have piled into the junction ahead from all directions and caused a major snarl-up. The police are nowhere to be seen. You are now very late for work.

After you finally get there and cross the car-park, someone hurtles past carelessly and splashes muddy water all over your new suit.

What happens next? What will you do with all that residual anger that has built up inside you? Studies suggest you will take it out on the people you meet next. Your decision-making is very likely to be tainted for the ensuing hours – because you are (rightfully) angry with the world. The next few people you meet will not have done anything to make you angry, but you are quite likely to relate their behaviour to the thing that made you angry that morning. Someone not displaying courtesy in a meeting, for example, may remind you of the boorish drivers you encountered earlier – with predictable consequences.

The Berkeley study referred to in the excerpt from HBR reveals that if anger is induced in people, their decisions in entirely unrelated matters will be affected – they will be harsher and more punitive, rather than fair and objective. This is commonly experienced. You do not want to have a performance review with a boss who’s come in angry from home that day – you are likely to be on the receiving end of punishments the boss would like to dole out to others, but can’t.

What are the lessons for the workplace? We can’t really stop people from getting angry in the first place – anger is a natural reaction to external stimuli. What we should do, however, is become very aware of the effects of anger on ourselves and our thought processes. Never make decisions, write e-mails, review others when you are seething inside. It is far, far better to postpone those matters until you have calmed down.

We can also mitigate against the effects of residual anger by making people accountable for their actions, as Ms Lerner and Ms Shonk suggest. People force themselves to recover objectivity and focus on the facts rather than on unrelated emotion when they know their decisions will be evaluated by cool, calm, independent experts. So in any process where the quality of decisions really matters, embed decision-evaluation into your project-management process.

The Hollywood depiction of leaders as visceral, angry people who get mad to get things done is a dangerous one to follow. Anger is natural and cannot be legislated against. But we should all be very aware that our decisions are affected deeply by unrelated anger. There is a personal and organizational responsibility to manage anger in the workplace. The first step is to recognize its ill-effects, rather than see it as heroic and necessary.

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