Ticked Off

The pandemic and economic downturn have caused anger to become one of the most common emotions felt while on the job.

Published: Jul 17, 2020

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The rage started bubbling up before the Zoom meeting was even over. Henry, an analyst at an information technology firm, was hearing for the second time this month that his workload was going to increase. And while that news may not have been enough to push him over the edge, other recent aspects of work made it difficult to suppress the emotion: the announcement that he wasn’t going to get the promotion he’d been gunning for because of “extenuating times,” and the fact that he canceled his vacation because, as the boss had put it, “the company needs all hands on deck.” “I slammed down the laptop and stomped off,” Henry says.

The pandemic and economic downturn have caused a slew of emotions to hit workers in nearly every which way. But career experts say one of the most visible feelings that they’re seeing and hearing about these days is anger, because it’s an adaptive response to a threat. Indeed, in a recent study conducted by Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University examining more than 20 million tweets, researchers found global sentiment regarding coronavirus that started out as fear in late winter shifted to anger by April.

The key thing to remember is that you do have a choice in how or if you’re going to let the anger drive your reaction, or if you’re going to recognize it for what it is and move on.

That shift makes sense: between work fluctuations—be it a layoff or an increase in workload—longer grocery store lines, frustrations over mask wearing, and the very real concern of getting very sick, there are a lot of reasons for people to be ticked off. “People are showing a short fuse in meetings and not assuming as much positive intent as prior to the pandemic,” says Julie Connolly, a Korn Ferry Advance career coach.

But being able to acknowledge our anger and not act on it by blowing up at a colleague or taking it out on a spouse are two different things. Here’s how to take your anger and use it to your advantage—or at least not to your detriment.

Know your triggers.

We all have things that set us off, but sometimes it can be difficult to figure them out. One way to pinpoint these triggers is to see what makes us react so instinctively that we can’t take a moment to pause—a near-primal response. Often triggers come from something that happened in the past that makes it very difficult for us to react logically, says David Meintrup, a Korn Ferry Advance career coach.

Pull back.

Once you’ve identified your triggers, you can begin to defuse the anger by taking yourself out of the situation—or go from being reactive to responsive. To do this, you have to regulate the primal piece of the brain, the amygdala, which is always looking for whether you’re in a safe environment. Anger obviously disrupts that environment. But by pausing, you can move into observation mode, which requires the rational part of your brain, the neocortex, to kick in and think through something logically, Connolly says.

While that doesn’t mean you can skip the staff meeting, it does mean going for a run or blasting music can help that shift take place. The key is to “have a safety valve so you can go off and clear your mind,” Meintrup says.

Choose how or if to engage.

While it’s important not to suppress anger, deciding whether you engage with it is a different decision. And that’s what makes the emotion complicated; in some situations, people turn into the anger and use it to fuel change. But oftentimes, engaging with anger can cause an adverse reaction—such as quickly typing out a nasty email response or using a terse tone on the phone that breaks down communication. The key thing to remember is that you do have a choice in how or if you’re going to let the anger drive your reaction, or if you’re going to recognize it for what it is and move on.

Move forward with kindness.

It may sound counterintuitive, but when you’re ready to approach the situation or person that has upset you, begin from a place of kindness. Consider what may be going on in that person’s life or what stresses he may be under that caused him to react the way he did. And don’t forget to bring that empathy toward yourself, too. You can’t expect to let your anger dissipate if you aren’t compassionate about why you got angry in the first place.

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