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Making Sense of the Madness

People express anger in ways ranging from tantrums to outbursts.



The Roman poet Horace described it as "brief lunacy." A 17th century writer called it "a vehement heat of the mind" that brought "burning to the eyes, and trembling to the parts of the body."

For thousands of years, long before the first personal computer crashed on a deadline, humankind has struggled to understand and harness anger. Yet how far have we come? Workplaces teem with "rage-aholic" lore--stories of employees who, like "Network's" Howard Beale, get mad as hell in very public, sometimes ferocious ways: The news reporter who pitched his computer out a window, then threatened to follow it. . . . The irate employee who smeared poison ivy pap on his supervisor's toilet seat.

Yet anger "is a normal emotional expression," explains University of South Florida psychologist Charles Spielberger, one of the country's leading anger researchers. It's both a trait, an inherited human characteristic, and a state, a transient condition that varies in intensity from mild irritation to blood-boiling rage.

"We tend to demonize anger and rage," says clinical/forensic psychologist Stephen Diamond, author of "Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic: The Psychological Genesis of Violence, Evil and Creativity," (SUNY Press, 1996). "We're taught that it's not very nice to have these feelings. But there's a difference between natural, normal anger and pathological anger."

In the workplace, angry employees are frustrated ones. Their goals are thwarted by obstacles. The attorney denied partnership, the single mother forced to work double shifts, and the sales rep issued a backwater territory are likely to be angry. But how they express their anger depends upon their genetic makeup, upbringing, "anger style" and psychological profile.

Passive-aggressive behavior is the most common form of anger expression in the workplace, says Robert Baron, professor of management and psychology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., who has been studying aggression for 29 years. Fearing confrontation and punishment, employees snipe. They call in sick, miss meetings, maliciously use up company resources and feign incompetence.

Some practice what Deanna Geddes, associate professor of human relations and administration at Temple University, calls "obstructionism." They hinder corporate functions by not returning phone calls, intentionally losing documents and interfering with co-workers' duties. Others engage in "retaliatory avoidance." They leave rooms when loathed colleagues arrive, and give the silent treatment, coupled with dirty looks, to those who they believe slighted them.

"In the worst cases, they'll quit their jobs without notice," says University of Louisville social psychologist Michael Cunningham. "And a few wait until the worst day of the month to leave."

In the tweedy halls of academia, employee theft, vandalism, embezzlement and sabotage are sometimes referred to as "equity barter." "A lot of evidence shows that employees who do this are trying to regain a sense of justice and fair play," says Judi McLean Parks, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Washington University in St. Louis, who studies "broken psychological contracts" between employers and employees. A 1990 study showed that employee theft increases after mergers and acquisitions, when employees' job security is threatened. "They feel unjustly treated, and they're trying to punish those they think are responsible," says McLean Parks.

Workplace revenge often has complicated motives. An avenger might wish to reacquire something lost, punish a "transgressor" and deter future violations, explains Tom Tripp, an associate professor of management and decision sciences at Washington State University, in Vancouver, Wash. "Most avengers see themselves as having a moral cause," Tripp says. "They try to restore the balance of justice by getting even. And usually, they want the lesson to be kind of painful."

Such was the case for a fired computer programmer who punished Encyclopedia Britannica by replacing the names of historical figures in the encyclopedia computer files, with those of Britannica employees.

Most employees keep their retaliatory impulses at bay. But quite a few succumb to "vivid, violent and sordid" revenge fantasies, says Tripp who studies workplace revenge. Such fantasies typically involve the physical annihilation and/or career destruction of a nemesis. "It seems to help [the fantasizers] cope better," Tripp says.

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