All we have to do is open the newspaper, turn on the TV, or look at the world around us, and it won't take long to find something that makes us mad. Whether it's the high price of groceries and gas, the indignities of air travel, or the person in the next cubicle yakking loudly on a cell phone during working hours, every day we encounter plenty of things to keep our blood pressure at an unhealthy high.
It can be harmful to others and ourselves to vent our anger, but it can also be unhealthy and unwise to keep it bottled up. I will therefore offer five guidelines to make anger work for us instead of against us and that are grounded in the principles of ethics. I'll also show how these guidelines can be applied to three common and frustrating situations at work: the annoying co-worker, the incompetent assistant, and the hands-off boss. But first, let's take a look at what anger is, and why this emotion raises ethical issues.
Is Anger Inevitable?
Anger is the intense feeling associated with a perceived injustice. When you're trying to a enjoy a movie and the person next to you carries on a conversation with his companion in a normal tone of voice, you get angry, because you feel he is doing something he shouldn't be doing. Employees who spend too much time at work making personal phone calls or surfing the Internet incur the wrath of their boss and their colleagues because they're doing something they shouldn't be doing (and not doing something they should be doing, namely their work).
Although the experience of anger is psychological, its roots are in the realm of ethics; we get angry when we believe others have violated their ethical obligations to be fair (BusinessWeek.com, 2/15/07) or to treat us with respect (BusinessWeek.com, 1/31/07).
Ethics plays a role not just in what gives rise to our anger, but in what we choose to do with it. The expression of anger can be harmful, and we have an ethical obligation to do no harm. Domestic violence, sexual assault, and murder are the most extreme examples of what happens when anger get out of hand.
But death and physical trauma are not the only harms that can result from the free expression of anger. Insulting, threatening, or demeaning a person can produce feelings of anxiety or fear that are forms of harm, even if that person emerges without bruises or broken bones. Taking ethics seriously and being a person of conscience therefore means, in part, ensuring our anger doesn't get out of hand.
Five Rules of Engagement
Thich Nhat Hanh, the celebrated Vietnamese Buddhist monk, noted that some people believe a good way to deal with anger is to beat up a pillow. However, he believes this makes us feel worse because we intensify the very feelings we're trying to dissipate. Keeping our anger bottled up isn't an acceptable solution either, since doing so won't change the situation we're angry about, and we're more likely to erupt with hostility somewhere down the line, which benefits no one. What, then, are some better ways of dealing with anger?
Here are my suggestions for using anger constructively and ethically when you encounter a situation that makes you angry:
1. STOP: Don't react right away. Take some time to assess what is going on.
2. BREATHE: Deeply. Cooling down will make it easier to come up with a strategy that will succeed.
3. LOOK: At the matter from another point of view. What are all of the possible explanations for why this is happening?
4. ASK: "What response is most likely to be effective?" It probably won't involve blowing your stack.
5. GET: Help if need be. The problem may be too big to handle alone. Help can even be in the form of some feedback from another person.
This is a commonsense approach to tackling infuriating situations with a cool head. Decisions made when we're boiling with rage rarely turn out to be good ones.
How might we apply this five-step approach in our daily lives?
The Annoying Co-worker
Whether it's their music played too loudly, personal cell-phone conversations that go on and on, or too frequent visits to your office that waste time, co-workers can really get on your nerves, can't they? It's tempting to tell them to shut up or get lost, but not only is this disrespectful, it's not likely to get you what you want.
Instead of quietly seething, only to erupt in anger when you can't take it anymore, why not let the annoying person know as kindly as possible that what he's doing is making it difficult for you to get your work done, and then state whatever it is you'd like to have happen? The only way for us to have our needs met is to make it clear to others what those needs are.
The Incompetent Assistant
When a person who works for you can't meet your standards, berating her and saying demeaning things is, as in the situation above, disrespectful and ineffective. If you've read other Ask the Ethics Guy columns, you know the recurring theme: Taking the high road isn't just the right thing to do; it's also the smart thing to do.
The problem could be that your assistant is intimidated by you, and fear is getting in the way of his doing a good job. It could also be that the talents and skills this person has aren't matched by the job assignment. It might even be the case that your standards are too high, and no one—not even you—could reasonably be expected to meet them.
Isn't it in your own interest to try to find out what is really going on? Falling into the familiar pattern of getting angry, not getting the results you want, and then getting angrier won't accomplish anything. As the saying goes, "If you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always gotten."
The Hands-off Boss
Some bosses get on your nerves because they're always on your case, but it's just as bad, if not worse, to have a supervisor who has too little involvement in your work. A good manager has to be present and can't assume subordinates will be able to figure out what he or she wants. It is understandable to feel anger at being given tasks to do and little or no direction for how to do them; a manager who isn't around often is someone who appears not to care.
This is where looking at the situation from a different perspective can help: Rather than being uncaring, the absentee manager may simply be overcommitted or even unaware that others want or need direction. Your solution, then, is to get involved, not mad. Letting the boss know what bothers you and what you'd like to change will benefit everyone: the company, your clients, and you. After all, ethics isn't just about what you owe others. It's about what others owe you, and you have a right to be treated respectfully and fairly by your boss and everyone else with whom you work.
Of course, the five-step method for dealing with anger doesn't apply to every possible situation. The bigger the issue—global warming, terrorism, our collapsing economy—the more complex the solution. Complicated problems also may not have an immediately identifiable party with whom we can work things out. Nevertheless, many of the frustrating situations we encounter can be helped by the solutions I've presented here.