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How to use anger constructively.

Knowing how to handle angry feelings in the workplace can mean the difference between professional achievement and personal embarrassment. First of a two-part article.

Anger, a complex emotion fueled by complex causes, need not be devastating. Like a volatile chemical, it can be used safely and effectively to our own advantage. First, however, we must admit to having angry feelings and understand what sparks them.

Many of us have been taught that unless we have something nice to say, we shouldn't say anything at all. Furthermore, we (especially women) have been intimidated into believing that displays of anger are unprofessional. That is true for uncontrolled displays.

* Origins. The most common source of anger in the workplace is work-related incidents. Another instigator is faulty equipment: the vending machine that won't vend, the computer that goes down at a critical time. A third cause of anger is derived from personal relationships. The employee who runs around like a racehorse is apt to become impatient with the coworker who works at a snail's pace. Medical technologists get angry when doctors and nurses accuse them of performing tests too slowly or not caring about patients' welfare.

Perceiving an injustice or feeling that someone is behaving unprofessionally causes various feelings to be triggered, including frustration, confusion, and anger. The response is similar when our self-esteem is under attack, perhaps because we have been insulted or spoken to condescendingly. It can be crushing to find that our high expectations of our work and coworkers are not being fulfilled.

Many expectations are realistic. We expect employees to report to work on time. When someone is continually late, we become angry--rightfully so. Unrealistic expectations incite conflict between people's viewpoints and value systems. That's when fury runs high.

Here is a case in point. Laboratorians have been taught to believe their work is significant. They expect physicians to acknowledge their contribution to patient care--an entirely unrealistic expectation. Activities typical to lab frustration are legion: being excluded from decision making, having inadequate funds for in-services and continuing education, being located in a hospital basement or crumbling physical plant. Imagine how a laboratory manager asking for a budget increase feels when the administrator replies, "We're tired of dumping money into a black hole with nothing to show for it."

Administrators who fail to recognize problems associated with working in the laboratory are frequently cited as a major source of anger among laboratorians. Still, one technologist confessed during a session on anger in the lab, "It's our own fault for being too passive. We expect administration to fix everything. We don't know how to sell ourselves, but we get mad when we're not respected or rewarded. We're not good at networking or politics."

Negative responses lead laboratorians to think it doesn't matter what they do. When employees lack a sense of purpose in their work, it takes less and less to arouse their anger. Some burn out. Letting go of unrealistic expectations helps reduce the level of frustration, avoid anger much of the time, and defuse anger when it does occur.[1]

* Advantages. Anger serves as a warning light that something is wrong. We may then proceed negatively or positively. Taking the negative route through revenge or intimidation is self-destructive.

Yet anger can be used instead as a source of energy directed toward worthwhile causes. Its expression often restores an atmosphere of dignity and fair play, as when anger subsides after an apology. Communicating angry feelings helps us assert our individuality, build self-esteem ("at least they notice me now"), and restore ambition and a sense of healthy competition.

Anger can help us probe for truth, assert authority, or shake, challenge, or change inappropriate attitudes or behavior. It can be a tool to overcome unjust treatment. A recent example is Robert Pohill's statement that his feelings of rage while being held hostage in Lebanon gave him the strength to survive.

* Expressing anger. There is no ideal way to communicate anger. Whether we choose to ventilate, deny, or transform it depends on our perception of the situation, the people involved, and our ultimate goal for the situation at hand.

[paragraph] Ventilating. It is dangerous to believe that ventilating anger will automatically eliminate the grievance that inspired it. On the contrary, anger ends only after the grievance has been eliminated.

Some people spontaneously verbalize what is making them angry. Erupting like a volcano may lead to embarrassment, humiliation, or guilt. The technologist who blows up at a pathologist or other supervisor may live to regret it professionally as well.

For explosive anger to be effective, three rules must apply. First, it must be directed toward the true cause of the fury. Second, anger should be appropriate to the situation. Third, the target of anger should be unlikely to relatiate--a prediction often difficult to make.[2]

Delay and reflection are preferable to spontaneous combustion. The situation usually seems at least slightly different after things have cooled down.

[paragraph] Denial. It is a myth that denied anger inevitably leads to physical or mental illness.[3] Denying anger is negative only if it permits a stressful situation to continue, just as expressing anger is negative only if it makes things worse.

One way to deny anger is to misplace it--to direct it at the wrong person at the wrong time. If a physician has upset you on the phone, lashing out at the person working beside you will spread the anger while making you feel and look foolish.

[paragraph] Refocused energy. Anger can frequently be transformed into a tool for positive organizational or personal change. Doing so will not only make your grievances known but also help you avoid using frustration as a weapon that may backfire on yourself and others.

Rechanneling angry energy appropriately requires time and creativity. Analyze the anger, deciding what you are willing and able to do about it. If you are angry about being short-staffed, turn your feelings into righteous indignation. Make a strong case to the appropriate people that your department is functioning at a dangerously substandard level. Work with members of educational programs at nearby colleges, seeking ways to make your laboratory a more appealing workplace to graduates of their medical technology programs.

If you are upset because your department lacks the funds necessary to perform high-quality work, remember that group activities can generate tremendous power for change. Consider forming alliances with physicians who have the ear of administration. Investigate potential sources of money, such as research grants or community organizations. Enlist vendors to supply funds for projects that would benefit both their products and the laboratory. Organize a committee to brainstorm other sources of revenue.

* Initiative. Blaming others for your anger is easy but counterproductive. Doing so denies you the power to control your own emotions and the opportunity to use them to your advantage. Acknowledge your anger and take responsibility for it by considering appropriate options and committing yourself to courses of action that will lead to positive results.

[1]Ellis, A. "How to Live With and Without Anger," p. 124. New York, Reader's Digest Press, 1977. [2]Konechi, V. Annoyance, type and duration of post-annoyance activity and aggression: The cathartic effect. J. Exp. Psychol. [Gen.] 104: 76-102, March 1975. [3]Tavris, C. "Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion," pp. 118-119. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1984.

Shirley Harmon, Ph.D., a specialist in communications and leadership based in Orinda, Calif., frequently gives management seminars and workshops.
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Title Annotation:Managing Anger, part 1
Author:Harmon, Shirley
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:Feb 1, 1992
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