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Workplace anger can be a catalyst if properly directed.

CHICAGO -- The inability to express anger in the workplace might be robbing supervisors of a useful tool, experts suggest.

The expression of healthy, measured anger mobilizes behaviors that improve communication, working relationships, and work outcomes; reinforce limits; and facilitate the upholding of corporate beliefs or needs. Particularly for enlightened individuals, healthy anger also can be a catalyst for personal growth, Dr. Sandra Kopit Cohen said during a panel discussion on the topic at the annual meeting of the Academy of Organizational and Occupational Psychiatrists.

"Anger is an important signal, and I think we're scared to use that signal at times," she said.

She described the all too common scenario in which an employee asks a supervisor if they are angry, only to be met with the response, "No, I'm not angry; I'm concerned."

This type of response actually presents peers and subordinates with a confusing mismatch of content and affect, said Dr. Kopit Cohen, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, New York. Just as a parent would not try to convey to their child the importance of not hitting a sandbox playmate through a sweet sing-song tone, an angry affect and tone might be appropriate to convey corporate values in the workplace.

When those values or norms have been violated, measured anger directed at the correct person can also send a "community" message, said copanelist Dr. Stephen Heidel, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego.

For example, after a member of a substance abuse counseling team tested positive for marijuana, the firing of that worker sent an important message to the other workers. Similarly, a new medical officer calling in an outside investigator after a medication dosing error was discovered set the tone for what employees could expect going forward.

That said, the panel acknowledged the distinct difference between an individual with the capacity to delay and shape how she expresses anger and those without internal controls who exhibit hostile outbursts. Most of the work in psychiatry and the corporate world has focused on managing this destructive type of anger.

To feel angry, an individual must take things personally, often perceiving a threat to their self-esteem or safety / security, said psychiatrist Lt. Col. Steven Pflanz, commander of the 579th Medical Operations Squadron at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington.

"In situations where we are comfortable with ourselves and are not feeling threatened, we don't very often act out aggressively," he said.

Sources of anger at work can include personal contributions not being recognized or valued, perceived unfair treatment, poor communication, others not agreeing with their ideas, limited opportunities for advancement, and increasingly, a lack of needed resources, Dr. Pflanz said.

"Anger is a valuable emotion to recognize for both employers and employees," he said in an interview. "It can serve as a valuable tool for identifying issues that need addressing and lead to productive solutions; whereas ignoring anger only lets the underlying issues fester and worsen."

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Author:Wendling, Patrice
Publication:Clinical Psychiatry News
Date:May 1, 2010
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