Fresh Pressed

The psychology of angry workplace staff: it’s like an old school tennis match

When you walk the streets of New York you should avoid eye contact with all people. Avoid eye contact with the crazies, the self-talkers, and even the handsome model types for those will turn on you faster than women can line up for a Prada sample sale or they can rush into a Filene’s Basement running of the brides sale. There are a lot of angry people walking the streets of New York. Mind you it is not that there are more angry people in New York. Did you see the study that said the happiest tweets come from Times Square in New York City? I am absolutely convinced that there are angrier populations throughout the United States such as Longview, Texas or Rockford, Illinois.  Even our politicians pay heed to the anger. Congressman, Bernie Sanders made headline news last year, when he stated that the American people are angry. Back to the streets of New York. The reason there are so many angry people walking the streets of New York, is that there are many more people walking the streets of New York than most, if not all, places in the United States. Tokyo still beats New York City in that regard but I am not too sure about their rage. Apparently, it is a bit repressed.

New Yorkers feel comfortable being angry. Obviously not all New Yorkers express their anger outright in the streets.  Yet, a zone of anger expression has clearly been established out in the streets of the City that never sleeps.  Of course, sleep deprivation could be leading in part to the need to ventilate.   Interestingly, recent research finds that when there is a lack of sleep, women are grumpier than men.  Walking through the streets of New York City at 8am will confirm that finding for you.  Speaking of the city streets, have you seen the steam rising from the ground? It is quite a site to see on a Monday morning. The foreboding is quite foreboding in itself.

nyc steam vents

The rising steam appears to seep into the collective public conscious as they are walking on by in their way to work.  I was just walking through New York City’s Madison Park, where the US Open Tennis matches had been streamed live for a congregated audience of tourists and New Yorkers alike.  The steam hung heavy over their heads. Which got me thinking, as I was heading in to work, how does one manage angry employees? They just don’t stay out on the street.  Eventually these angry people make their way into a shared office space.  Besides just interacting with them, how does one go one step further and mentor or coach angry individuals? What if you have a Jimmy Connor or McEnroe in your midst?

Angry employees seem to be more and more frequent in the workplace. Perhaps because wages are stagnant? Perhaps because there are more generations interacting with each other requiring more patience on the part of all to understand the different work ethics?  Perhaps because some are being asked to do more with less?  Not everyone responds to the workload in the same way.   A new study was released this past week about the Generation Y workforce and their grand sense of entitlement. Accordingly, a job promotion is often expected even when they have not been long on the job. This ain’t your parent’s generation, that’s for sure.  I have the distinct pleasure of supervising generation X, Y, Baby Boomers and the like. None, mind you is easy to manage and does require shifts in my perceptions, approach, and messaging.  Feedback looks way differently from one generation to the next. Such shifts cause mental as well as physical whiplash. I kind of want to argue for hazards pay. Speaking of which, did you know that moving to work in DC came with such a hazards pay perk? It was a swamp way back when. Actually, it still is both in actual geological measures and in personality blowhards.

Generically, the workplace now resembles Washington, DC.  Sticking with the swamp image, supervising such a wide range of ideologically and narcissistically varied group of individuals is a bit like reaching into a swamp and hoping you don’t get your fingers chomped off by an alligator. And, let me set this straight. There are curmudgeons in all generations.  Hell, I have seen some curmudgeony babies in my lifetime. You know they exist. I am not saying they are ugly babies. I would never cross that sacrosanct red line. Anyway, have you ever had that moment when at a team meeting you look around and you see steam rising from the top of the heads. How should you respond when an angry employee asks a question that is off-topic, related only to their own situation, or tries to push another agenda?

What I have found in a decade of serving as a supervisor is that you have three types of angry employees. You have the John McEnroes, the Jimmy Connors and the sport fan. Let me explain. First off, the McEnroes. These are easy to identify off the bat.  The second they enter the workplace, they are a walking, breathing ball of angry fire. They are just angry all the time. Even when they agree with you in a meeting, they come off sounding harsh and bitter.  They want credit for being a rockstar yet their work quality ebbs and flows with their emotions. Oftentimes, these are also the employees that will point out your own lack of professionalism, or lack of adhering to protocols yet they blatantly disregard common sense and pick and choose which protocols they will follow. Many times they are over the line but refuse to recognize that call, blowing up wherever they choose. What is disturbing to me is that many of these angry-all-the-time blowhards are just plain old mean-spirited. Yet, they feel that they deserve to be mentored and nurtured. How can one mentor an angry person? Mentoring is a gift and should be recognized as such. Mentoring also means that the person receiving said mentorship is open to feedback and wants to grow.  Internalized and externalized anger in such large doses impedes growth and clouds judgment. I have had over 70 research assistants and supervised over 30 employees. My style of supervision is to mentor.  However, I have found that mentoring an angry person just leaves a very bad aftertaste. They are quite a bitter pill to swallow that needs a shot or two of rum afterwards in order to smooth the digestion.

Next, we have the Jimmy Connors. They are competent, longstanding employees. They have put in their time. They know their stuff. They are steady and more than hold their own against the McEnroes types. However, they are curmudgeons in the true sense of the word. At times, however, they are very stubborn to move psychologically once they have formed an opinion.  They have gravitas and feel that status should carry them forward. Now these types of angry employees definitely come from throughout the different generations manifesting their curmudgeon ways accordingly.

Lastly, we have the sports fan. The really angry but hyped-up sports fan, that is. At first, the employee is seemingly easy-going. They act as a cheerleader, but deep down they are seething, ready to explode at whatever slight they perceive (oftentimes, misperceive). This group is a little bit like that Generation Y entitled employee. They seem to not only cheer on the team, but they cheer on themselves even more loudly. When things do not go their way, they throw a tantrum akin to the highly invested sports fan who is angry at the umpire’s call or the inexplicable inability of the player to score that easy point.  I am reminded of a horrible tennis scene years back when Monica Seles was playing a tennis match and all of a sudden a deranged fan came onto the court and stabbed her in the back. I don’t know about you, but I have witnessed such a many times metaphorically-speaking that is. This type of angry employee is the type that goes around the office with a swelled head and as such disrupts various processes (whether they are team meetings or the like) because they feel entitled to be disruptive if the processes don’t follow what they believe to be the right course of action.

When interacting with these angry employees, it is best to keep some general rules of interaction in mind. Don’t entertain their badly-expressed anger in the moment, although at some point a corrective action needs to be taken. Note that active listening is only good when the person is in a state of calm.  Further, don’t try to be their friend. That is just the worse mistake possible. Friendships in the workplace are fraught with a lot of politics as it is.  Being friends with an angry person is just throwing fuel onto the flames. As for mentorship, take that on only if wearing a full body armor.  Most of the time they don’t truly desire mentorship, they just want to be told how great they are.  Treat the employee with respect and engage in a way that makes project expectations clear and provide proper guidance.  Respond appropriately as a supervisor to any work-related issues, but avoid falling into the role of counselor. So many times, people want to place me in that role or that of being a mom. I am neither to them. The best you can do is provide them with the necessary tools to do their job.

So, before going into work get some coffee and let the steam just waft on by.  That is your moment of zen.

58 replies »

  1. Psychologist Mimi, I really like how you compared the anger that individuals in New York seem to contain with the steam coming out onto the streets in New York. I wonder if the theme of anger on the New York streets is something that is based out of a fear. A fear to get to know that person one is walking next to.

    When I was 12 yrs. old I went to a movie theater in Brooklyn. It was the movie “Kindergarten Cop” 1990 with Arnold Schwarzenegger. The movie was a PG-13 movie but 3/4 of the audience were adults. I recall individuals throwing popcorn, swearing and then one large man stood up in the middle of the movie theater and starting swearing more. This was a very contradictory experience. Perhaps the individual adults in the movie theater were like the individuals who walked the streets on NY. Perhaps, they were angry individuals who tried to relax by going to see a very lighthearted film. I wonder if this was a coping mechanism for them.

    TCM Annuska

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    • Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Every time I pass the steam pockets in nyc i get a little scared and I’m reminded of the pent up fury. What a shame they ruined your movie experience back then. Yeah we think a set of angry people in the workplace are bad. A dark loud effects room can be suffocating for those that are angry.

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  2. Very well written. I love the sports fans reference because it is so true (I myself am guilty of sport-related rage at moments). I find it interesting that you say not to befriend them, however. I’m not saying that you’re wrong but rather it is something I hadn’t thought of. I agree wholeheartedly befriending them is dangerous but at the same time perhaps a friend is all they need? Perhaps lacking a friend is the source of their disdain for peace. I don’t know, it’s a very interesting topic. I do agree that not befriending them is safer and that natural processes will wrap up the issue and put a bow on it, but is that the best course of action to take? I don’t know. Great stuff!

    Check out my blog also (sorry but I’m way small and trying to make my way through the blogiverse). Anyway thanks for the quality content! You have earned a follow. 🙂

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    • Hi there. Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I will definitely stop by your blog :-).
      As for your question, I have been burned too often when I have befriended those angry employees. Their mood can just be so explosive causing them to forget the “friends” past acts of good will.

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  3. A really good analysis of the workplace. I found all in teaching. But one thing that puzzled me was one day a fellow teacher would befriend you and the next he or she was demeaning you with their students. That is a real no no. It was a hostile work place to say the least and even worse with all the backstabbing.

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  4. I am a actually from Longview, Texas. People aren’t as angry as you would think. I was shocked to hear Longview was voted angriest city in the U.S. but, then again… We are talking about the Bible Belt, there are a lot of very closed-minded judge mental people in Longview unfortunately. Angry.. I wouldn’t say so.. Condescending and hypocritical… Absolutely!

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  5. I can’t help but wonder how the angered employees regard their superiors. Many of us could turn the table and rant about the boss or supervisor that feel(s) they are entitled to be pissed off because an employees deadline was missed, never taking into account the overworked, and generally underpaid. There are also the employees that must multitask their job along with the freeloader, or the absent, due to illness or personal issues.

    I’ve been fortunate to work both sides of the fence, and while I must admit that the work ethic of some individuals is squat, compared to that of their counterpart, I refuse to hold grievance with those that are picking up the slack, unless of course they are threatening to co-workers or patrons.

    It’s easy to sit on the sideline and corral angry people into subgroups, if we dehumanize them and push the blame solely upon their shoulders, then we, ourselves.have failed to recognize and prioritize our own business affairs.

    Curiously, are you an observer, solely, or are you willing to pitch in where and when it is necessary to accomplish team goals? Are you able to address a personnel issue as it comes up, or do you “wait it out” hoping it will go away? Are you ignoring a problem and “expecting” the working subordinates to read your mind and observe your sense of entitlement?

    Perception is everything, and it’s like the proverbial car wreck. Each witness reports something different.

    You appear frustrated and elitist in your summations. I have no doubt you are stressed by your own responsibilities.

    Best of luck to you and your crew. Sadly, I see this happening in workplaces everywhere. Upper management must engage themselves in their compensation rewards as well as those of their stockholders of their companies if they want to succeed and not merely, survive.

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    • Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. I too have been on both sides so i have different perspectives to draw upon like you do. I totally agree in that of course we all rant about our bosses. i have done so in past blogs. even bosses fit into these tennis greats categories. no one is immune from anger. In terms of the categories. As a social psychologist we are always looking for moderator variables and are looking to categorize phenomenon. Categorization is actually a cognitive tactic. There is a thing called the actor/ partner effect and when a person is consistently viewed a certain way by their interaction partner it can be thought of as a finding. Then again, most research these days is discounted by the masses, and in some cases rightly so. i write with a sense of humor and a bit informally about serious matters (occasionally). At the end of the day, we are just all sharing our thoughts and observations here.

      Sounds like you are a bit upset about your own workplace situation. I wish you luck finding a happy workplace going forward. I know that is a very difficult thing nowadays. Have a fabulous weekend.

      Ps i lead a nonprofit so i do everything my team members do, including bathroom cleaning (literally picking up feces),pulling all nighters and managing 101 tasks at the same time. You cant effectively run a non-profit by just observing from the sidelines 😉

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  6. A recent Gallup poll found that 70 % (!) of Americans hate their jobs. In fact, they really hate their boss. So I am not at all surprised you run into anger at the workplace. I work at home, alone, and I’m angry — wages are low, cut or stagnant. Workers are expected to more more more with less income and no raises or bonus or commission — while the CEOs are now earning 280 times that of their lowest-paid workers.

    We should be angry.

    It’s masking it and making nice that becomes more challenging.

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    • Tell me about it. Wages are horrible at the moment and at a non-profit, they are getting lower due to sequestration-related cuts. It doesn’t help morale whatsoever. I was at a conference a few years back when bill clinton stated that we can end the AIDS epidemic, but we must do more with less. What an economic and psychological burden to put on the health service providers. So sad. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. Hope you have a wonderful, restful weekend.

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  7. You are right. Part of the problem is that there are some many people in NYC. One of the many solutions to the angry employees is that people should be going towards what they love in life. It is silly to go to your job to work. You should go to your job for enjoyment & fulfillment.

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  8. Bosses can encourage people to leave their work at the workplace and have a life outside of work. Most people are only at work to get the paycheck and support themselves and their families. Bosses can respect that by being sure there are adequate resources put to the tasks so that they can be accomplished within the parameters of work hours. Reject “maximizing profit” as a workplace goal. Stay profitable, yes, so everyone can stay working. But spend some of the profit on making the workplace humane.

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  9. Yes! My experiences in New York have been a study in angry, simply because of the sheer mass of people. Sometimes I make eye contact with everyone, just because I shouldn’t. I’m so intrigued by anger, but also terrified by its reckless momentum.

    Oh, and I love the tennis analogy. Being a fan (but not an angry one), I understand how mental the game is, and how anger can transform a player (or a deranged fan).

    How DO we address this in others, whether in the workplace or in our home lives? My instinct is to run, but you can only run so far…

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  10. Like a tennis match, lol.

    Well I hope they are all armed with the old woodies and not the current level of tennis racket for internecine warfare.;)

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  11. I treat angry people at work like my tv. I’ll keep it on in the background, and it’s cool as long as it doesn’t interrupt my work. As soon as it does, I have a problem. On a more serious note, I feel like our society encourages people to be angry, yet do nothing to relieve the emotion. Great post

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  12. Reblogged this on Communicatism and commented:
    I love how the blogger makes the comparison to people on streets and angry workplace staff. However, I believe this happens in big cities. I live in Hong Kong and I do not make any eye contact with random people on street. And my reason is the same as the blogger – avoid eye contact with the crazies, the self-talkers, and even good-looking people because you don’t know what they want.

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  13. I’m a New Yorker by birth and live out of town now. But I do get into the city quite regularly and do lots of walking while there. It’s distressing to see the amount of homelessness on the streets, but as far as the general population goes, people appear pretty happy to me. Maybe it’s because I don’t catch them going to work 🙂

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    • Lol. I am one of the first people to say new yorkers are actually nice and helpful. We are in a hurry, yes. But we stop and help. Then in the office, well.. actually i find employees in california to be even angrier. Truly 🙂

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  14. Psychologistmimi, I like your view about angry people due to bad workplace. I live in Japan, particularly in Kyoto, but I often go Tokyo, instead of angry, I see so many anxiety people due to high pressure in their workplace. People running away for train or bus where actually they don’t need to do that, where people can be so panic when their train ticket doesn’t work or other small things. I can see the most developed country like US and Japan, personal life is something that they sacrifice to be more productive in their work. They have high GDP or technology development but actually people suffer to have life-balance for their work and personal life. I think that’s the reason why so many angry people or anxiety people walking in the street

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  15. love this – am first to have a shorter fuse when I don’t get enough sleep – reminds me of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing – how summer heat contributes to powder keg…

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  16. At our work place we are trying safe dialog. Staff members can express their concerns in an nonjudgmental atmosphere. With no senior management, no recordings and what is said or seen stays in the room the response has been positive. It’s not perfect but it is an attempt.

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