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All the Rage

Most people agree that anger in the workplace is increasing. But there's no consensus on what managers should do about it.

November 02, 1998|DON LEE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

His co-workers called him the "Taz"--and it was not a term of endearment.

Ted H., a 48-year-old utility company employee in San Diego, admits that he often got so mad at work that he screamed at people on his shop floor at the top of his lungs. When he took on fellow workers and supervisors, his face turned red and his chest tightened. "I could hear my heart pounding in my ears," he says today, calmly.

Outbursts that reminded fellow employees of the Tazmanian devil in Warner Bros. cartoons never escalated into violence, he says, but they did lead to poor work reviews and often carried over into his home, threatening his marriage as well. After two co-workers told their supervisor that they were frightened by him, Ted called his firm's employee assistance program, which referred him to anger-management classes run by Jay Schneider and Gina Simmons in San Diego.

There, Ted dug into the roots of his rage--disenchantment with his career progress, increased workload, mistrust of management. Sitting in a conference room with 20 others over six nights, he learned such behavioral techniques as taking responsibility and disengaging to stop a "rage attack." And he learned one other valuable thing: that he wasn't the only one mad at work, that, in his words, "you're not some weirdo from Mars."

There is nothing extraterrestrial about anger in the workplace. A nationwide survey by the Princeton, N.J.-based Gallup Organization earlier this summer found that four out of 10 workers generally feel at least a little mad at work. Although that number was down from a similar poll last year, experts were disturbed to learn that so many people harbor such negative feelings.

"That is a troublesome finding," says Batia Wiesenfeld, an assistant professor of management at New York University and co-author of a report, based on the Gallup poll, that was conducted for the Marlin Co., a publisher of company information.

Wiesenfeld says anger robs companies of productivity. "It makes it a lot more difficult to make teams work effectively."

Human resource managers know that much. Many also agree that anger is increasing in the workplace. But few have specific policies or programs to assess and reduce such emotions.

In most cases, anger doesn't trigger a response from management until there is a threat of violence or it clearly hampers productivity. Often the problem is left for untrained supervisors to handle, and not everyone thinks anger-management counseling--which has grown into a cottage industry--is the right way to go.

Where there is very little debate is on the causes of the increased anger in corporate America. "The biggest one is that the post-war psychological contract has been violated," Wiesenfeld says. "Even when times are good, people can be laid off at any second, and they are expected to work extraordinarily hard. There is constant change in organizations. Paternalism is really dead."

All of this has contributed to a decline in employee morale, says Art Hershey, a 35-year human resources manager who is now vice president of Smyth, Fuchs Interim Inc., an outplacement firm in Los Angeles. "If morale goes down, you have very negative feelings that develop, and anger is one of them," Hershey says.

Many people also are spending more time at work, and they are working more closely with one another in smaller groups and teams, creating more settings for emotions to be exhibited and shared by workers.

At the same time, many companies have established zero-tolerance policies on sexual and other forms of harassment. While that has helped reduce violent acts at work--reported workplace assaults in California have declined from nearly 4,700 in 1993 to 3,500 in 1996--some experts and workers complain that it has chilled work relations, leading sometimes to a subtle worsening of anger and resentment.

"Back in the old days, when you got into an argument, you'd blow it away," says a 54-year-old manufacturing worker in the Southland. Recently, he says, he was forced to seek counseling or face possible termination because he got angry, once, at a fellow worker. "Today they want you to work in an environment where you can't raise your voice."

"We are taught that anger is not something to talk about," says Mitch Messer, director of the Anger Institute in Chicago, which has six counselors. He says most companies deal with angry employees by punishing them or by giving them motivational training.

"What we do is teach a supervisor to peel an anger artichoke away," says Messer, who is an adherent of Alfred Adler, a Freud contemporary who created the concept of the inferiority complex. Messer believes a lot of anger is rooted in self-contempt and feelings of insecurity. But the real culprits, he says, generally are inept, insensitive supervisors.

Messer recalls a recent case in which a director of a medical lab came into work one day and was told by her boss to move out of her office and into another to make space for a new worker.

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