There are any number of moments throughout the day that can hijack us and steal our tranquility—and possibly cost us our job
By Jayson Bueckert
Not long ago, a phone call between me and my eldest son was cut short.
“Dad, I have to go. Niko flooded the toilet again, and it’s dripping into the room downstairs.” Click.
I could feel it. Anger building in my chest, rising up, clouding my vision. I could feel the flush of blood in my cheeks and my heartbeat quicken.
One breath, two, then three. This is not about Niko, I thought. This is about me.
Niko is my 10-year-old son. He is the light in my heart, a joy in my life, and a teacher like no other I have had.
Niko is on the autism spectrum, and he sees the world in a way that I cannot. He is fascinated by things in such a delightful and sometimes mischievous manner.
Water overflowing a toilet bowl is one of them. There are few greater pleasures for him, to be truthful. This is not the first time we have had a flood in our house for his own amusement.
Anger is a funny thing (not funny ha-ha). It is the most forceful of the negative emotions. It can be nowhere in sight at one moment and then completely overtake one’s body and mind in another.
Maybe that is why we describe someone getting angry as snapping. Positive emotions can do this as well, but you don’t ever hear about someone getting hijacked by joy.
Anger is a thief that takes away the best parts of you and replaces them with a much darker version. Whether physical, verbal, or even mental, anger is a violence that corrodes the host.
In the words of Mark Twain, “Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.”
The world feels like an angry place right now. Protests in Ottawa this past winter. Riots in DC. War in Ukraine.
These are a class of anger that are different from the kind I am talking about. They are bone deep, a mile high, and unlikely to pass over anytime soon.
They are systemic in some cases and infect entire segments of society and our world. These deserve a separate discussion than the one I have chosen here.
Given these much more vicious and destructive forms of anger, my example of a toilet flood feels quite paltry. And yet the ability of that emotion to steal my joy felt quite powerful in that moment.
The anger I am talking about is one where I feel personally affronted. It is a passing storm that robs me of my tranquility, and for no good reason, so far as I can tell.
In this event, I am not presiding over a case of injustice or fighting a noble cause. No, I am angry because I have some wet drywall. Put that way, it all seems quite silly and insignificant.
This happens to all of us, and the consequences can vary. Sometimes, it is a bit of humble pie as we ask for forgiveness from our spouse or child. Sometimes, it is just a battle of wits between you and a stubborn bolt on the lawnmower.
But when it happens at work, it can have some pretty deep consequences. Gone are the days when someone’s temper tantrum is brushed off as, “Oh, that’s just our Johnny.”
And rightly so! We all deserve to work in an environment that is free from violence of all kinds, including someone else’s meltdown.
Now, I am not saying there is no room for anger. Sometimes, it is completely appropriate to be angry at a situation caused by poor management or even a coworker’s actions.
But how you express your anger in the moment can make all the difference in whether your next conversation is how to constructively fix the problem, or where to leave the company cellphone as they usher you out the door.
One breath, two. . . . I could feel the anger subside as I returned to myself. Like the rider getting back on the horse, I regained my wits and felt . . . good. I even smiled.
This was not about Niko; this was about me.
There are any number of moments throughout the day that can hijack us and steal our tranquility. There is but a moment between the event and our blood boiling in which we can preserve ourselves. But we must practice this beforehand to have it as a tool to use in the moment.
The Stoics of the ancient Greek and Roman world had a useful method for this called negative visualization. It is pretty much as it sounds. In essence, you consider a future insult, annoyance, or calamity and prepare yourself for that eventuality.
By doing this, you build a psychological resistance to these negative experiences and make room for gratitude instead. It seems to work well and has even been adopted into modern cognitive behavioural therapy.
Alongside the practice of negative visualization is, of course, the physical suppression of anger. This is the practice of one breath, two breath, and so on.
In her book How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, Lisa Feldman Barrett makes the case that emotions are constructed by our bodies and brains. For example, when your heart rate increases, your adrenaline spikes, and your eyes widen, you may be feeling an emotion. Is it fear? Anger? Joy?
What is interesting is that these bodily processes look the same for feelings of elation as they do for fear or anger. Feldman Barrett makes the case that our brains then use familiar categories and cultural cues to give these emotions a name. The feeling of anger can then be seen by the person as a set of physical attributes that require some intentional interpretation.
And here is where the breathing comes in. Taking deep breaths and consciously slowing down actually does something to our bodies. It brings the breath back in line, it slows the heart, and it allows some of the adrenaline and cortisol to subside. The rider can then get back on the horse, look at the angry cloud that blew in, and carry on.
It is a simple technique, and many of us know it. And yet it is quite hard to employ when the time comes.
As it happens, I had been thinking quite a lot about anger before that phone call with my eldest son. I had visualized this very type of event and prepared myself for its eventuality.
I took some deep breaths and the anger drifted away, preserving my tranquility. Now, there is just a very interesting watermark on my ceiling.
For every minute you remain angry, you give up 60 seconds of peace of mind.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
6 Ways to Manage Anger at Work
According to an Australian study, the most common causes of workplace anger are being treated unjustly (77 percent), being the target of bad behaviour (23 percent), and being disrespected (20 percent).
As Jayson points out, preparing yourself through negative visualization of potential insults, annoyances, and calamities can help you manage anger when faced with such a situation. And learning to breathe to calm your body is highly effective in managing the emotion.
In the workplace, many things can trigger feelings of anger. Hear are six tips for helping you manage anger at work.
1. If you were wronged, acknowledge it. You’re allowed to feel angry. Rather than trying to stamp out these feelings immediately, feeling angry when you’ve been wronged is a natural and healthy response and less likely to cause harmful stress than fear. Being angry gives you certainty and control. Just don’t take out your feelings on others.
2. Venting can increase your anger. Research shows that doing nothing is more effective at reducing your anger than venting, especially chronic venting. Reliving the problem over and over again doesn’t lead to solutions or make you feel better. It leads to more anger.
3. Examine why you are angry. What triggered it? What is underlying it? What can I do to make myself feel better? Often, fear lies behind anger. Politicians are masters at stoking anger by preying on people’s fears.
4. Talk about what you’re feeling. After you’ve used breathing to calm yourself down, if you are able to, talk with the person who made you angry and share with them how their words or actions affected you. Wait until your anger has subsided to a controllable level, but don’t engage if you are not able to control your emotions. People do not think clearly when angry.
5. Seek support. Sometimes, you have no control over what made you angry, and the situation is not resolvable and is ongoing. If you are unable to walk away, such as finding a different job or a different role in your company, seek support from a friend or therapist to help you manage your feelings.
6. Use anger to motivate you. Anger can make you feel capable and strong and that you can endure a situation. You can use this to advocate for yourself. Anger doesn’t need to lead to meltdowns. If you harness your anger, you can use it to improve your life and work.
Sources: Harvard Business Review, theconversation.com
Fired for Anger: Two Case Studies
Clogged Sink the Last Straw
A City of Dawson Creek, BC, maintenance worker had a history of poor behaviour and performance. Despite previous suspensions and warnings over the years, including a final warning to improve his behaviour, he instead let his anger boil over one day, and it cost him his job.
The cause? A clogged sink in the children’s art class at the city’s art gallery. The worker had been called on a number of occasions to fix the sink and instructed the staff and students not to pour paint and other things down the drain.
On this occasion, the worker berated the teacher in front of children and parents and stormed off while the teacher was in midsentence trying to explain. For the city, because of his previous episodes of abusive and disrespectful behaviour, this was the last straw, and the worker was terminated.
The union grieved the termination, but the arbitrator upheld it because the worker’s behaviour was a clear violation of the city’s code of conduct for employees, the employee had been disciplined for prior behavioural issues, and he had been given a final warning.
Throwing Bolts in Anger
A repairman working on subway cars with the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) was fired after he threw bolts at a coworker, one of which struck him on the knee. The repairman had 11 behavioural incidents on his file including using profane and offensive language and spitting on his foreperson’s vehicle. After the last such incident, the repairman signed a last-chance agreement to save his job.
Not for long. A few years later, after being “provoked,” he threw two four-inch bolts in anger and frustration at his coworker. The arbitrator ruled that while the worker had a mitigating mental health disorder, the evidence was insufficient to conclude that his behaviour during the incident was caused by his disability.
Because the behaviour qualified as either workplace violence or inappropriate, disrespectful conduct, both of which violated the last-chance agreement, the arbitrator upheld the firing.
JetBlue Flight Attendant Sees Red
Usually, it’s angry, unruly passengers that we hear about on the news and see in viral videos. But on August 9, 2010, a veteran JetBlue flight attendant lost it, claiming that a passenger he had repeatedly told to remain seated as the plane taxied to the gate ignored him, swore at him, and hit him with her carry-on bag as she removed it from the overhead bin.
The flight attendant announced over the plane’s PA system that he’d been abused by a passenger and was quitting. He grabbed two beers, deployed the evacuation chute, and slid down.
He was later fired, arrested, fined $10,000, and served a year probation. The incident garnered international media attention. Investigators did not find anyone who corroborated the flight attendant’s account of what happened, and he was later evaluated with a mental health disorder and alcohol-abuse problem.