IMPLICATIONS FOR THEORY AND PRACTICE, LIMITATIONS, AND FUTURE RESEARCH
The aim of our study was to identify the workplace anger triggers, responses, and strategies for a group of workers referred to an anger management intervention. One of the particularly salient findings that emerged from the interviews was that the triggers for our respondents are similar to those of the general working population (e.g., Bies & Tripp, 2005; Domagalski & Steelman, 2005; Fitness, 2000; Fox & Spector, 1999), yet vastly different when considering the current groups anger expression. In terms of the triggers for anger, there are some authors who argue that individuals with anger management concerns are often overly sensitive to events (e.g., Favaro, 2005). Certainly, in this study the participants reacted to the same stimuli that a general population finds anger inducing.
The triggers of unfairness and disrespect reported by our sample closely align to Gibson and Callister’s (2010) “fairness” antecedent depicted in their model of episodic anger. These authors argued that triggers falling under this heading are best understood by the notion of fairness. Drawing on Adam’s (1965) Equity Theory, Gibson and Callister (2010) argue that perceptions of fair treatment are determined by a comparison of the treatment to a set of ethical and moral standards held by the individual. Illustrative examples from the transcripts suggest this was also the case for our sample.
A practical implication of the finding regarding the four anger triggers is that inappropriate anger expressions may be addressed at senior management levels or at organizational level. Managers need to be aware of the causal attributions that can be made by employees and ensure that in their dealings they are consistent in their behavior, provide clear and distinct information, and are able to creating a working environment in which there is a general consensus about management’s intentions (AT; Kelley, 1973). For example, worker anger can be triggered when decisions about employees are changed over time. Particularly in rostering worktimes, there are some managers that vary rosters with no consultation, with no information provided about why the roster was changed and who seem to favor specific employees. Addressing the root organizational cause of employee anger that emerges in this situation requires the manager to be consistent in the way the roster is developed, share information about the decision-making process and ensure that fairness to all employees was evident in the final roster.
Detecting triggers and acting on preventing these may alter the context in which attributions occur, consequently protecting senders of anger expressions from crossing the Impropriety Threshold (Geddes & Callister,
2007). This finding is supported by Booth and Mann (2005) who argue that it is vital for managers and leaders to realize that dealing with anger at work includes addressing the root organizational causes and not merely assuming anger is an individual issue associated with an employee’s personality. Thus, fair and transparent practices, effective recruitment, training and development programs to ensure all workers are properly qualified and skilled, and a culture of mutual respect and tolerance of authentic and appropriate expression of emotion may go some way to reducing the anger triggers that appear to impact on all workers.
Gibson and Callister (2010) also discuss how managers might use the emotional information presented to them (e.g., either their own feelings of anger or anger expressed to them) to determine, for example, if a procedural unfairness has occurred, or if an employee feels they have been obstructed in reaching their work goals because of organizational barriers. Given workplace events precede the experience of an affective reaction, identifying specific events which act as a trigger for feelings of anger and dealing with these proactively can alter the intensity of anger, as well as the importance attributed to an incident by the sender of anger (Domagalski & Steelman, 2005).
Where the group in this study clearly diverges from the general population is in their subsequent expression of anger. Clearly, the ways in which participants describe their expression of anger and the intensity of anger experienced is in excess of the general population (Gibson & Callister, 2010). We believe a salient finding from this study is that the participants indicated a very limited repertoire of anger expressions, especially when compared with studies examining anger in the general working population (e.g., Browning, 2008; Fox & Spector, 1999). Not unexpectedly, aggressive responses were the most frequently reported form of expression and there was a relative lack of other forms of expression indicated. Some did report using anger-in or suppression as typical forms of expression, however these were soon followed by another anger expression as issues were deemed unresolved.
Work by Gross (1998) demonstrates that the chronic use of suppression strategies can have deleterious physical and psychological effects for an individual. There is also a risk that the suppression of anger accumulates over time to eventually erupt as an extreme form of aggressive expression (Van Kleef & Cote, 2007). Indeed, the limited and ineffective repertoire of anger responses reported by our participants were underlined when they were asked to discuss their typical ways of dealing with anger (i.e., over a longer point of time and after expression has occurred). The overwhelming response was a lack of any coherent strategy for dealing with their anger and a sense of helplessness about how to do things differently. This strongly suggests a skills deficit (Deffenbacher, Oetting, & DiGiuseppe, 2002) in terms of not having learnt other ways of dealing with anger in the past.
Taken together, the results regarding the anger responses and strategies used suggest several important practical implications for human resource practitioners and managers hoping to better manage these workers. First, it seems a social skills approach would be effective for our participants (Deffenbacher et al., 2002). Such an approach attempts to provide angry individuals with conflict management skills like recognizing the impact of their behavior on others, taking time out, and developing listening, feedback and assertion skills. Social skills interventions frequently blend modeling, coaching, and behavioral rehearsal with evaluation to develop skills (Deffenbacher et al., 2002).
Second, the results suggest the participants in our sample have difficulty translating their anger experiences into appropriate anger expressions (see
Geddes & Callister, 2007). This indicates the salient role of emotional regulation during this process (Gross, 1998; Lawrence, Troth, Jordan, & Collins, 2011). Indeed, Gibson and Callister’s (2010) conceptual model of episodic emotion highlights the function of emotional regulation in the emotional experience and expression relationship. Emotional regulation concerns the ability of individuals to influence which emotions they have, when and where they have them, and how these emotions are expressed (Gross, 1998). Both Gross (1998) and Lawrence et al. (2011) discuss the role of developing an individual’s ability to cognitively reappraise an event when dealing with anger. This strategy refers to reinterpreting one or more of one’s appraisals in a way that alters the situation’s emotional impact, for example, by changing how one thinks either about the situation itself or about one’s capacity to manage the demands it poses (e.g., cognitive reappraisal: changing a situation’s meaning to the extent that there is a change also in the emotional response to that situation). Indeed, Lawrence et al. (2011) suggest several avenues to develop this skill such as mindfulness and emotional skills training.
Finally, we believe training in emotional intelligence (Mayer & Salovey, 1997) may provide an important way for individuals who express excessive anger at work to improve their behavior. Geddes and Callister (2007) highlight the role of emotional intelligence in determining the likelihood of an individual crossing the “impropriety threshold” and aggressively expressing their anger in the workplace. Indeed, explicit education in interpreting and understanding the emotional display rules governing one’s specific organization, as well as emotional intelligence training, might be two worthwhile intervention strategies for organizations or practitioners dealing with such employees similar to respondents in our study (Jordan, Ashkanasy, Hartel, & Hooper, 2002; Troth, Jordan, Lawrence, & Tse, 2011).
For most employees and managers, the aggressive expression of anger typically falls outside the organizational norms of rationality (Callister et al., 2007). However, for our participants, organizational display rules appeared insufficient for reining in their aggressive anger expressions (Kramer & Hess, 2002). Either they were not aware, or failed to conform, to the communication rules governing emotional displays in their organizational settings.
We acknowledge the limitations of this study. First, we are aware that our study focuses on the anger experiences of a very specific group and thus these findings are not intended to be generalizable. Second, the results need to be considered in terms of the self-report nature of the data and the potential for bias introduced by the interviewer when collecting the data.
Research quality is closely dependent on the individual skills of the researcher and personal biases can pose a limitation to this type of research. However, being aware of these biases is important and in collecting the data our interviewer reflected on any potential biases following each interview. In terms of any bias that may have been introduced during analysis, the data collected were also examined and coded by a second coder to make sure the interpretation of the data was as accurate as possible. One possibility for future work in this area would be to also collect data from other sources such as the respondent’s immediate supervisor and colleagues.
Nevertheless, a major strength of this study lies in its qualitative nature. Data grounded in “real life” scenarios brings a depth to the study and a degree of personal understanding that is sometimes missed in quantitative studies (Strauss & Corbin, 1990). By enabling participants to tell their own stories of anger in the workplace, we were able to provide details relating to internal and external triggers, without the assumed framing that occurs in much organizational research. Additionally, the nature of our sample is a strength of our research as most anger research to date has focused on general population samples. Examining extreme populations provides us with a better understanding of the broad range of anger expressions at work (e.g., Fitness, 2000).