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Express your anger - it's all the rage

By Lucy Kellaway
December 13, 2007 10:20 IST
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Last week, for the first time in many years, I had a big, shouty, stand-up row with a colleague at work. It started off quite small, as these things often do. But then he accused me of being sloppy. I accused him of trying to cover something up. The two of us stood in the middle of a large, open-plan office and let rip. His complexion was deepest crimson and so was mine.

From my point of view he was intransigent, patronising and utterly insufferable. From his point of view - and I'm guessing here - I was superior, sarcastic and utterly toxic. So we fought for a bit and later, trembling with rage, I returned to my desk.

The conventional view is that rage at work is bad, as well as being mad and dangerous. A Gallup poll in the US showed that one in five office workers has been so furious with a colleague in the past six months that they would have liked to hit the other person.

But the true picture is more complicated than that. There is good rage and bad rage. Someone who gets angry all the time is impossible to work with. But for the rest of us, occasional bursts of anger, especially if performed with panache, have much to be said for them.

My rage attack had two advantages. First, it was a gift to everyone else. Humdrum office life was briefly interrupted with a little drama. Eyes popped, and suddenly there was something to whisper about at the coffee machine. It was also good for me as it got my blood coursing agreeably through my veins.

Companies have got themselves into a muddle over anger. On one hand they tell us to feel passionate about our work. On the other they expect us to be professional at all times - which means keeping our negative emotions under lock and key. Passionate and professional strike me as odd bedfellows.

Actually, I've never really gone along with the idea of passion at work. I've looked the word up in the dictionary and it means: a strong sexual desire or the suffering of Jesus at the crucifixion. Neither of these quite captures the mood of the average white-collar worker.

However, if what passion means is minding about work, I'm all for it. The trouble is that minding means sometimes feeling furious when things don't go according to plan.

Indeed, for me work is one long rage opportunity - starting with the fact that the machine that dispenses hot water for tea is on the blink. Clearly some management of rage is in order, and here is what the experts usually suggest.

Their first tip is to breathe. I've never been able to see what the big deal about breathing is. It keeps me alive, but that's as far as it goes.

Their second is "positive self-talk" - to squash your negative feelings and give the other person the benefit of the doubt. This is dodgy advice. Why should I give my patronising colleague the benefit of the doubt when he was so clearly in the wrong? The very thought make me much crosser than I was before.

The third tip is forgiveness. Again, no dice: I don't forgive the water machine and I don't forgive my colleague.

The reason this advice is so hopeless is that it is trying to eliminate anger. Instead, what we all need advice on is how to do anger better. My outburst last week could have been improved on. The first problem is that I don't get angry at work often enough, so last week's row was too shocking to my system. Once every 10 years is too little. Once every 10 minutes is too much. The ideal might be about once every couple of months.

The next problem was that I didn't end it properly. Afterwards I sought the advice of a pugnacious colleague. He said I should send an e-mail saying: "Don't ever speak to me like that again, and I demand an apology at once."

I rejected this because such e-mails are not my style. My style is more to nurse a lifelong grudge (and possibly write a column about it). Which approach is better? Clearly the pugnacious one is. My problem was that I was an anger wimp and didn't follow through.

Apologies all round are a good way of ending it. A fairly senior woman I know often has bad-tempered outbursts but always says a large and generous sorry afterwards. She reckons (and she may be right) that the effect of a furious shout followed by an apology often leaves her victim marginally better disposed to her than before the rage attack.

There are other principles for good anger. It is almost never good to shout at a subordinate. Mine was a row of equals. Second, however angry you are don't let it spill out of control. Throwing the computer keyboard is not advisable as it makes you look an idiot and then your computer doesn't work, making you crosser still.

If you are small and male, anger is to be avoided. A man under 5' 7" who loses it at work just looks comic. This isn't fair, but that's the way it goes.

The people who worry me most at work are not the people who get angry but the ones who never do. A calm man I knew in my teens once told me: never lose your temper, it makes you look weak. He had a catastrophic nervous breakdown in his mid-20s, poor man, and is now in sheltered accommodation in Arizona.

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Lucy Kellaway