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When Rage Derails a Career: Coping with Anger

We all experience moments of anger; we’re human. But some people have a hair-trigger temper that takes them from “calm” to “rage” in the blink of an eye—often over something that is seemingly unimportant.

Do you have that tendency? Or do you work with someone who fits that description? If it’s the latter, you’ve probably mastered the duck-and-cover drill when this emotion erupts. Either way, it’s critical to have some coping skills for yourself and for your colleagues.

Let’s face it, productivity and performance are probably not optimal when one of the team members is a human powder keg.

The Emotion of Anger

I recently read a great article about this topic in the June issue of Men’s Fitness magazine. Author Josh Dean interviewed a psychologist, Dr. Mitch Abrams, who specializes in anger management and violence prevention in sports. Abrams works with NFL players and inmates at five New Jersey prisons to teach them how to harness their anger and control their rage.

In the article, Abrams explains that anger is a normal human emotion and, in fact, a necessary reaction to danger. The way we respond to those feelings determines whether or not we have a problem, and the key is learning to manage that anger. We need to become more aware of the progression, which allows us to contain angry feelings before they reach the “explosion threshold.”

Anger Escalation

Here’s an example of how that progression might occur in the workplace:

  1. You start the day unaware that you are irritated. (This often happens with executives, and I see it frequently with my coaching clients.) You move from meeting to meeting without time to process your feelings in between, and the stress-pressure cocktail begins to sabotage your calm demeanor.

  2. Several hours later, you are feeling annoyed. Your cheery disposition has left the building, and a discussion with a colleague about a minor issue suddenly turns into an argument.

  3. By noon, you’re completely perturbed. You feel tense and on edge. Nothing seems to be going your way, and any trace of your positive attitude has vanished. Every new email and phone call ratchet up your growing hostility. The knot in your stomach prompts you to skip lunch.

  4. The cumulative effect of irritation and annoyance kicks in mid-afternoon with the sense of being infuriated. You haven’t found a resolution to any of the day’s problems, and they’re piling up. Multiple deadlines are looming. A difficult conversation doesn’t go well. Worries about a situation at home are competing for your already-frayed attention.

  5. At the end of the day, you’ve moved from simmer to boil—and now you feel totally Full-blown anger is your response to just about anything. Someone critiques your work or suggests that you try a different strategy. A staff member makes a silly error. A driver cuts you off in traffic. It’s the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back. Whatever it is, you lose it. You blow up inappropriately, giving someone the super-sized combo platter of your wrath when they really might only deserve a side salad. It can get very ugly for everyone involved.

Smart Anger Management

Besides what rage can do to your blood pressure, this kind of reaction can create monumental problems at work and at home. Abrams recommends visualization exercises that can bring you back down to a baseline of calm and content.

Recognizing the tendency for escalating anger is an important first step. Since rage can sneak up on you, watch for your body’s signals that might indicate your irritation level is on the rise. Is your pulse racing? Are you clenching your teeth? Do your neck muscles feel tight? Pay attention to those cues. Stop and do something to prevent further escalation. Take some deep breaths, listen to soothing music, go for a walk around the block. Whatever helps you to relax and lighten up your mental clutter.

Managing your anger requires getting in touch with your feelings, which can be a tough concept for some leaders. I would imagine Abrams faces the same skepticism in his work with pro athletes and prison inmates. It takes some practice, but there’s hard evidence that mastering this “soft skill” generates positive results. In my opinion, anger management is a required competency for expanding career success. If leaders want to command respect, they need to understand their own emotions and have control over them—even in the most challenging situations.

If unhealthy anger is affecting your life at work and at home, I encourage you to seek help. Don’t let rage derail your career. Contact the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) at your place of work or talk to a trusted therapist.

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