In episode #85 Dr. Bob talks about anger in the workplace and highlights how you can manage it to make your life effective.

Credit image to: Michael Browning on

Transcript of the Podcast:

In this article, I want to talk about being cranky and irritable and some ideas about what you can do about that. I was thinking of this recently when I was at a local store that I go to fairly regularly. This particular store is operated by a man and his wife and sometimes around Christmas they bring on some more staff because things can get kind of busy. One of the things that I really noticed about the man the other day was that he was cranky. He was smiling, trying to show his customers, and me, that everything was okay, but you could see that he was unhappy.

He was tense, he was moving fast, he was shaking his head at people. He was turning to butt into conversations and all of this despite the forced smile on his face. He looked like he wanted to look like he was okay but in fact, he looked pretty tight and he looked pretty unhappy. I can recognize in myself times when I was like that and so I thought today what I might share some ideas about what to do when you get angry or cranky or irritable or have that experience like this man had. Maybe you’ve never had it, and that would be awesome, but if you’ve ever had that experience, what can you do about it? So, one of the first things I would get you to do is to ask yourself do you have moments when you feel tense inside in that horrible tense way, but try your best not to show it to others?

So, you have that sensation but you don’t want anybody else to know about it. Do you ever feel irritable if not angry about things? It’s not just a single episode but something that lasts longer, a feeling that lasts over the course of hours or even days. Do you get sharp with people? Do you get, I call it aggressive with people? Do you notice that you’re very judgemental in your own mind, that your thoughts are critical of others and even of yourself? Well, if you say yes to those questions and if you think you’re fooling others by trying to keep all this under wraps you’re not. Everybody knows. Everybody can sense that because everybody can feel it in you because you give off a vibe. When I’m that way I give off a vibe and clearly the man at the store the other day was giving off that vibe as well.

People can’t know what you’re thinking of course. They don’t know what’s going on in your body but there is some form of energy that is communicated to others and this energy is a tense energy, a hostile energy and it really makes people want to stay away from you. It pushes people away. So, the store owner that I’m talking about has this tense interaction with his wife who works in the store with them, and while she smiles at customers you can almost feel her cringing when he’s doing this around her. That reminds me of a phrase called emotional labor.

A few years ago, I was down in Washington DC presenting a paper at an Occupational Health and Safety Conference and we were talking about psychological health in the workplace. I was introduced to this notion of emotional labour and I said “What on earth is emotional labour?” So, it turns out that that’s when you have to demonstrate on the outside a feeling that you don’t feel on the inside. That takes effort and some labour. This was an interesting concept that people have done a variety of research on over the years. There are some positions in the workplace that require people to be friendly on the outside, but they might not feel that way on the inside and that emotional labour that they have to use to get that smile on their face actually causes problems for people. Other people can sense it in you anyway.

Then I was thinking about people who work at airports. Often that’s a high tension place where people are rushing and trying to meet an aircraft or get on the flight, and the poor agents behind the desk have to maintain this sense of politeness and almost happiness if you fly on some airlines. Yet, I can imagine some of them might not be feeling that way inside. So, his wife was experiencing a lot of emotional labour and that’s pretty tension filled, not good for the workplace, not good for her but if you are experiencing this then let’s call it out. You must be under some significant stress and you’re responding to that pressure in your environment with a lot of anger.

Now anger almost always arrives when a person is feeling some sort of threat by another person or by a situation in their life in some ways. You see, what happens is that inside our brain is a little wee part of it called the amygdala, that some people call the lizard brain. I really don’t like that because lizards have no choice and you have a lot of choice about how you respond. The amygdala is kind of like a little radar detector that you might put in a car and this little radar detector, this amygdala is really just looking for danger in your life in some way. It’s always on, and is the part of our brain that’s looking for danger to keep us safe. When it thinks that something is dangerous in our world it says “hey we’re under threat” and that then sends us in a whole series of events when we have this fight or flight response occur.

We spin into a spiral just like an eddy in a river that circular and spins and sucks things down. This spiral or eddy holds all of our thoughts and physical tensions and emotional reactions in a bundle and we just spin around with that. It really causes us some problems if we perceive something in our environment that’s causing us to feel like we’re under some form of threat, and a threat of course can mean a physical threat but a threat can also mean something else. You see when we get into a position where we are feeling under threat in some way we want to withdraw or retreat from that, because we want to keep ourselves safe. Now sometimes we respond with anger by approaching or attacking the threat itself.

So, sometimes we can avoid and sometimes we can approach it. There’s lots of ways for us to feel threatened in the world that has nothing to do with physical threat. I mean obviously if we’re under some form of physical threat we want to respond in a way that keeps us safe. But there are many, many ways that we can have this experience of threat that’s not physical. David Rock who’s an executive leadership coach who I know has brought forward a model called Scarf, and it’s a great model around how we can feel threatened when in fact it’s not going to do anything to do with our physical safety.

One of the ways, for example, is with social pain. If we are rejected by others or we feel like we’re going to be rejected by others, we can experience that social pain almost the same way that we can experience some physical pain. In fact, there’s some very interesting research out there around how the brain pain centre gets activated when a person is in social pain equally as much as when they’re in physical pain. The body will respond because being in pain is a threat of some sort and so we can have that with social experiences as well as a variety of other things and that makes it really difficult for us to be able to think affectively. Once you’re in the fight or flight response, your brain is really just responding more automatically as opposed to thinking logically and softly and being able to problem solve effectively.

So, there are three things that you can do to help yourself if this is a pattern that you might find yourself in. Those three things are to unpack what’s going on, to realize your aggressive actions aren’t working for you in the long run and to slow down. So let’s talk about unpacking what’s going on. If you’ve heard me before you’ve heard me talk about increasing our awareness. If we’re doing things in an unconscious way, meaning we’re not aware of them, then we really have very little opportunity to influence it or change it. My store owner that I started off this podcast with, he didn’t look to me that he was thinking. He was just reacting and so the first step of starting to feel better, starting to get this under control is to really unpack what’s going on.

So, to do that I would suggest you write it down. Just doing this in your head, in your own mind is very difficult as it is hard to maintain your attention on it enough so that it makes sense. Being able to write it down gives you a chance to go back and review to again, modify it and so on until you get it right. There’s four things I would get you to pay attention to. The first is “what are the situations that you’re in that are triggering off this sense of threat or this anger response?” In my store owners case what was it that triggered it for him? Now, I think in his case it was a lot of people in the store requesting something from him simultaneously and that put him under some stress, and he wanted to get it done and he could see us lining up behind the customer in front and that then created some tension for him.

Now, I also know that his business isn’t doing so well these days and so maybe there’s some financial pressures that he’s under that sit in the background and make him more sensitive to customers who are coming in to pay him to manage the business debt. So, it would be wise for him to sit down and pay attention to all of the situations. Either the immediate situation like having people lining up and waiting for service, or the big background situation maybe the financial state of his business. Then second thing is to pay attention to your thoughts. What’s really going on in your mind? You can start to pay attention to your thoughts just by being aware of them. When I can get judgemental about situations and I can hear myself doing that, I can feel a different sensation in my body.

What are the things that you are saying in your mind? Just write down what they are, don’t try to judge them or change them or anything. Writing them down gives you just a little distance from them and it also gives you a chance to influence them in the next stage. You want to write down what you feel, that’s the third thing. What are my feelings that I am having at the moment? Those would be feeling words like “I’m angry, I’m stressed out, I’m feeling worried about something, this isn’t going to go well”. Then finally write down your physical sensations. What’s going on in my body because your body plays a major role in the threat response?

Is my heart rate up? Are my muscles tense? Am I getting a headache? All those kinds of things can play a role and writing it down is really helpful. Then the second thing is to realize that your actions really aren’t working for you in the long run. You might gain some immediate results with your angry behaviour but in the long run it’s bad for you. People who are angry a lot have a higher risk for heart disease. You know it’s no fun if we are going through life and feeling like my store owner. He’s not enjoying himself at all and I think the other thing that he should really pay attention to is that he’s not going to be able to get the things done that need to be done any faster. What’s going to happen is nobody wants to hang around with somebody who’s irritable and cranky like he is and so we’re not able to get stuff done. People don’t want to hang around us and it stops us from being able to deal with the pressure that we have in our life with a clear mind. As this threat response comes up it tends to shut off the front part of our brain where we do our problem solving and we tend to be more reactive rather than thoughtful.

The store owner had some immediate stress with a long line up of customers and probably does have some business issues in the background but it’s still better to be able to manage that when you’re thinking with a clear mind. Thinking in a way that allows him to manage that and give off the head vibe as we’ve talked about before, in a way that allows people to be welcomed, to want to approach him and work with him. The third thing is to slow down. You know one of the things I’ve noticed that after working with lots of people with anger problems is that they can get very speedy and time becomes a big issue. They are feeling threatened by this sense of time. I need to get it done immediately and this pressure arrives that increases their irritability about things not moving fast enough. The other thing that I’ve learned is that there are very few things in life where we really need to have this desperate fast sense of urgency. I worked as a psychologist in an emergency room a number of years ago and there I learned about what was an emergency and what wasn’t an emergency. Sometimes there are clear things that we have to deal with immediately otherwise somebody might die or get sick and so on, but for most things there’s no sense of urgency. If I go back to my store owner again he is a guy who was dealing with things that didn’t require any urgency. He could have slowed down, it wouldn’t have made a difference to us standing and waiting because we recognize there was only so many places to go, only so many people to help us and nobody waiting was irritated, only he was irritated. So find a way to slow down. Those three things are to unpack what’s going on, to realize that your aggressive actions aren’t working for in the long run and to also slow down.

I think those three things would really be helpful and you might find one thing out of that little menu I gave you there that might be helpful to you, if you happen to notice that this irritability is a thing for you.