When did you last lose your cool? Probably more recently – and frequently – than you care to admit. It’s not really surprising. After all, modern business life is full of irritations ripe for conflict situations, like sleepless nights, missed trains and acrimonious meetings.
Although nothing could excuse the company director who beat up his accountant for failing to deliver accounts to Companies House on time, the fact is that the urge to ‘fly off at a tangent’ faces many of us, more often perhaps than ever before.
But there are alternatives to shouting at your subordinates, taking your problems home or kicking the cat, although bottling up anger isn’t necessarily the answer. Doing it over extended periods of time might be good for the office atmosphere, but won’t do your blood pressure any favours.
It’s all very well trying not to be too obsessed about winning every time. Sometimes it pays to look for a compromise, a creative solution, an accommodation, but what if you’re up against someone who is not just difficult, but downright objectionable?
The first step is to identify precisely the root cause of their behaviour towards you, focus on the specific issue and avoid generalised reaction or attack. Losing control, and subsequently your temper, may make you feel better, but you could lose the respect of your colleagues and gain a reputation as an awkward devil.
More often, when we become angry, we don’t respond by fighting back, perhaps because ‘it’s simply not done’ in normal business life. But not all conflict is necessarily bad. There is nothing wrong with feeling angry, when, for example, a colleague lets you down, behaves unreasonably or doesn’t support you when a situation gets tough.
It’s how you respond to these feelings that matters. That means anger must be actively managed, not denied, if you want to avoid elevated blood pressure.
Suppression of hostile feelings or ‘bottled up anger’ can be damaging to one’s self esteem – and heart condition. In contrast, honest, openly-expressed conflict at the appropriate time can be beneficial.
Feelings of insecurity often provide a spur to challenge, development and growth in our personal and business lives, unlike dysfunctional conflict which frustrates and blocks achievement.
So how do we manage feelings of intense anger? We all act differently in conflict situations, but we can probably relate to one of five basic behaviour patterns when faced with a conflict situation:
Dominance: A wish to win the conflict confrontation and overwhelm the other person.
Collaboration: A problem-solving approach, a wish to satisfy all parties.
Compromise: Giving something to get something, or splitting the difference.
Avoidance: Retreat from a conflict situation.
Accomodation: A smoothing approach that focuses on the other person’s wishes.
If you are easily angered, you have to learn to manage your anger, by thinking about the difficult person who has aroused your anger, acknowledging your own feelings – whether they are justified or not, or are you being difficult – and above all, staying in control. Think about what you will do next and what your response should be.
Dealing with difficult people at work requires staying calm, staying positive, objective and constructive.
If someone makes a personal attack, the most productive way to deal with the situation is to be assertive – but never resort to aggression either physical or verbal.
If you lose your temper, the chances are you will fail to listen to what is being said and you will probably react inappropriately as a result. Ensure that you are not guilty of ‘faulty thinking’ when giving or receiving criticism. Ask yourself, is the criticism fair?
The wrong way to criticise is to go on the attack, for instance, by de-valuing a junior colleague; ‘you are totally useless: your reports are a disaster … another cock-up like this and you are out.’
It’s much better to adopt a more civilised tone. ‘I want to talk to you about the xyz report. Why are we drawing the same wrong conclusions? Have we really considered the implications of what we are saying? Is there a way we can avoid the same errors in the future? Emphasising the ‘we’ emphasises that you are part of this process as well.
Encourage the other person to respond and then move forward by making suggestions and agreeing further action. Say something positive, and avoid putting the other person in a defensive position.
The next time you find yourself in a confrontational situation, the following approach could help you stay in control and keep calm. Do not respond immediately to the person. Take a few deep breaths. It sounds like a clich‚, but controlled breathing will buy you some thinking time, help you delay your first signs of temper, and help you control what you actually say.
Manage your anger first by trying to understand the person you are up against, the cause of his or her anger, whatever triggered their behaviour and whether the fault is partly (or perhaps largely) yours. Avoid being confrontational. Aggression breeds aggression. A little respect shows you take them seriously.
If the other person is angry, let him or her run out of steam before beginning a discussion. Listen to them before saying anything. Assess what’s causing you to feel angry. Is your anger justified, are you just in a difficult mood, perhaps jumping to conclusions, or do you just feel threatened?
If so, why?
Think about the next step. What do you want to get out of this situation? And then work towards that objective. And finally, always summarise any action you both agree on, so that both parties are clear about what’s expected of them – which will hopefully avoid continuous or future acrimony.
Dealing with difficult people at work and managing one’s anger is not easy.
As the American management guru Saul Gellerman once said: ‘Getting results through people is a skill that cannot be learned in the classroom.’ Given the pressures on people at work today, it is important to work with others and take charge of your own relationships and challenges at work.
Playwright George Bernard Shaw shed some interesting light on the issue when he wrote in Mrs Warren’s Profession: ‘People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don’t believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they can’t find them, make them.’ How true.
Cary L Cooper CBE is professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School
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