Anger and the working woman

Women need to communicate their anger differently at work or else they are labelled difficult

woman angry at colleagueWomen have come a long way and are now soaring new heights in every area, including the corporate world. However, women who express anger at work are viewed as out of control or as difficult people to work with. If a woman becomes angry over an unreasonable expectation or demand, she is thought to have an angry nature or temperament.

Whereas, a man's angry reaction to the same event is attributed to circumstances outside of himself or beyond his control. In several studies, the relationship between anger, gender and status, both male and female evaluators conferred a lower status to angry women than to angry men. Men demonstrating expressions of anger over expressions of sadness are often perceived as more competent, but women demonstrating the same emotions encounter a negative reaction.

Dealing with prejudice

Anger is an emotional reaction to a real or perceived threat of some sort. It is a feeling accompanied by physiological changes in the body such as an increase in heart rate, flushing, headaches, or clenching our fists. It is our brain's response to the threat of harm. Anger is ubiquitous in the workplace and gender-based perceptions due to socially prescribed norms, put working women in a difficult bind—they are often labelled as unreasonable, overly aggressive or out of control.

Workplace anger or disagreement does not include rage, but degrees of anger that develop out of ordinary interactions in the workplace. We can become mildly irritated over a fleeting annoyance or infuriated by a missed deadline. Even though anger is a common human emotion, we need to learn to manage it. Here's what we can do.

Express, don't suppress: Use assertive non-aggressive sentences to express disapproval. For example, "Joanne, I want you to stop making personal phone calls during work hours," or "Kevin, I asked you to make arrangements for the meeting tomorrow, but I see that you have forgotten to reserve a room. This is the third time this month."

Modulate your tone: Your tone of voice will have a lot to do with how someone hears your message. Being aware of how you sound—frustrated, distant, hostile, or mean—is important for a woman's success at communicating anger.

Don't under-react: Carefully balance tendencies to under react, which can result in coming across as completely unemotional or cold. To avoid the "angry woman phenomenon," women have to offer a credible explanation for their anger. One very powerful tactic is to offer a couple of straightforward sentences about why you are angry. This mitigates the tendency on the part of others to fall prey to the stereotypical "character flaw" explanation for your anger.

Divert the energy: It is also helpful to use the energy generated by anger in a proactive way. When you are the recipient of a hostile customer, for instance, remain calm but do not condescend. Focus on solving the problem, not on giving in. Walk away or call for assistance when you feel the frustration rising. With others who annoy you, communicating by making eye contact, feeling as relaxed as possible, paying attention and keeping an open mind helps to channel your tension from anger productively.

Don't be taken for granted: Businesswomen sometimes encounter situations where colleagues, particularly men, think they know what a woman is going to say. This can be upsetting and irritating. It can be quite effective in this type of situations to ask, "Would you like to have this conversation by yourself?" "Because I'm not feeling like you are interested in what I have to say."

While rage is never acceptable at work, openly expressing anger or discontent in some situations is now viewed as preferable to repressing it.

Increasing your awareness of angry feelings helps you cope with them appropriately. Ask yourself what type of events trigger my anger? Is it a verbal attack, unfair treatment, impediments to reaching goals, or excessive demands?

Finally, redirect the energy produced by the angry feelings into some other activity. Dealing with anger productively also means having the ability to forgive and forget once you have dealt with your feelings and the situation that produced them.

When men get angry

Not just women, even men suffer because of their anger—although physically. When angry at work, some men bottle up their anger. Studies conducted by Swedish researchers found that men who swallowed their anger at work were five times more likely to have a heart attack or die from heart disease, than men who openly express their angry feelings. Of particular interest are situations where men don't confront co-workers perceived to have treated them unfairly. Turning the other cheek, or attempting to ignore the situation only increases the risk of heart disease. Reacting to unfair treatment by airing your grievance in a respectful, but clear way, such as, "I feel I have been treated unfairly because." has been shown to reduce cardiovascular risk. While mentors may advise avoiding altercations with others at work, if you allow time to cool down, think through what you are really angry about, even write out your grievances, you can get a handle on the most important issue.

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Linda Poverny
Linda Poverny,PhD, is lead consultant at Poverny & Associates, a Los Angeles-based organisational development firm specialising in improving organisational performance by maximising human potential. Her specialties include work/family integration, anger management, identity issues, and relationships.

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