The Danger of Silent Screamers: Can We Afford Anger in the Workplace?

Maybe it’s related to the latest technology and the fear of unwanted video going viral; or that too many people, such as me, have called out screaming bosses, but tyrant bosses seem to be diminishing. Before you get too excited, this may not be a good thing. The horrible, yelling boss is being replaced by silent screamers who may actually be doing more damage than even the loudest boss.

I have certainly seen a huge decrease in angry outbursts in the workplace in the last 30 years. In the past it was not unusual to see outbursts (sometimes violent) in the office or in the plant. Today such is almost non-existent. However, the popularity of the movie Horrible Bosses, and the fact that Google has more than 77 million results listed for “angry bosses” indicates that they have not disappeared.

According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, more indirect forms of bad boss behavior are leading to glossing over real issues in an effort to avoid a verbal confrontation – behavior such as terse emails and back-office chatter. The article references Steven Dinkin, president of the National Conflict Resolution Center, as saying that this indirect behavior is causing workplace conflicts to drag on longer and that research has shown that by suppressing anger and not dealing directly with issues it can also prevent underlying problems from being uncovered and resolved. Anger, overt or covert, is detrimental to the mission of the workplace, and executives are increasingly aware of this.

But here is the problem: The natural response to anger is almost always a positive reinforcer. The response of the person (or persons) who is the target of a terse email demanding action, for example, usually provides an immediate change in behavior that inadvertently strengthens the anger, making it more likely in the future. Whether the targeted person rushes to meet the angry boss’ demands, gets flustered or shows any emotion at all, those responses tell the boss that his or her behavior has made an impact – a positive reinforcer. Therefore, once the habit has been established, it is quite difficult to break. The long-term effects are not only that angry bosses make poor decisions and have poor work relationships but also that they damage their own emotional and physical health, and often that of colleagues and direct reports as well. In other words, all suffer.

As a clinical psychologist, I developed a reputation as the “go-to guy” for several doctors who referred their heart patients to me for treatment. They all had difficulty with tension and anxiety and typically dealt with it by expressing anger. Even the smallest detail, not properly done as evaluated by them, would at a minimum produce a knot in their stomachs. Consequently, they were perpetually uptight. The treatment I used was effective for all who followed it. As a matter of fact, I used it for all my patients and I have never known anyone who could not benefit from it. What was this magic treatment? Let me explain.

I taught them to relax. Whether you are the angry boss, or the recipient of anger from a boss or co-worker, you can benefit from practicing this skill – and it is a skill. You need to practice.

I used a technique called progressive relaxation developed by Dr. Edmond Jacobson, initially used for teaching pregnant women to relax during natural childbirth. The reason I used it in my clinical practice was that one cannot be angry, tense, fearful or otherwise upset if relaxed. Dr. Joseph Wolpe called it “reciprocal inhibition” therapy. In other words, relaxation inhibits most of the feelings and other behaviors that get people in trouble.  (Relaxation by pills, alcohol or other drugs does not teach people the skill.)

If you go to the Web, you can find scripts and videos that will teach you these techniques. Since I taught this to all my patients, I practiced along with them sometimes eight or more times a day. I continue to benefit from that to this day. I taught a colleague who was having trouble with his golf game to use it on the course, and not only did his golf game improve, but his behavior at work changed dramatically. I helped a prominent politician’s wife who had difficulty with public speaking to overcome her reluctance, and she has since done a beautiful job. (Side note: I suffered from stage fright in high school and now make my living on a stage.) For those who might be interested in learning more about this wonderful skill, I recommend the book, From Panic to Power, by Dr. John Parrino.

We cannot afford anger in the workplace, silent or otherwise. The cost extends not only to products, services and customers but also to the health of everyone associated with it. Whether you have a problem of anger or are the target of someone who does, learning how to physically relax without the aid of some external stimulus is a life skill that will increase your happiness at work, at home and with your friends.