This is a citizen contribution from Adam Chapman.
I vividly remember a moment early in my career when a colleague was incredibly upset in the office. She’d had some kind of family problem and was more-or-less in tears in the office. Our MD at the time was a pretty heartless guy and we thought he was about to redeem himself when he invited the upset colleague to his office. We guessed he was about to console her and ask if she’d like to go home for the day to sort things out. He didn’t. He berated her about not keeping her personal life “at home” and putting on “a more professional business manner” upon entering the office.
I was discussing this mean spirited person with another ex-colleague from that company, with whom I still keep contact. Apart from deciding that he was probably the best MD/manager we both had ever had1 we also discussed how you just cannot ‘leave things at home’ and what a ridiculous notion it is that people expect this.
Fast forward about 15 years and I found myself in a similar situation but this time I was the upset person. I wasn’t nearly in tears but I found myself incredibly angry at another manager’s actions2. Of course I couldn’t put on a ‘business face’ as we are who we are whether it’s in or out of the office. If you’re a human being reading this article I know you’re going to have had times where you’ve been incredibly angry also. It might be in the office; it might be in the car on the commute to the office3. In fact, being angry in the office is likely the most common emotion to deal with. Anger through frustration, other people’s behaviours – people who you might not choose to associate with if you didn’t have to work with them, from delays, failed projects, lack of good coffee in the canteen…
There’s a number of ways people suggest to deal with this anger. One is to allow the anger out – to vent the anger. This is meant to relieve the pressure and make you feel better. Shouting, screaming to yourself (in the car as it makes you look crazy in an open plan office), hitting something or pounding a pillow4.
Have you ever used any of these techniques? It felt good inside didn’t it, a little burst of warmth and happiness and relief from the anger.
May I suggest a different approach? The reason why I want to make this suggestion is that every time you indulge this desire to be angry you are rehearsing the act of anger. You get that happy feeling for having indulged and so you reward your brain’s pleasure centre. So in time, your brain reasons that if you get angry, then you feel good about it. See the problem here?
Thich Nhat Hahn puts it’s beautifully in his book “Anger: Buddhist Wisdom for Cooling the Flames” when he says “Anger needs energy to manifest. When you try to vent it by using all your might to hit something or pound your pillow, half an hour later, you will be exhausted. Because you are exhausted, you will have no energy left to feed your anger. You may think that anger is no longer there, but that’s not true; you are simply too tired to be angry.”
So how could you do it differently? How about just being aware of the presence of your anger and not allowing it to flourish? In the same way a seed needs water and light to grow, anger needs you to take action upon it. And that is usually done in the absence of awareness – we just react and act on the impulse. But if you can be mindful and aware of the anger then you don’t water the seed and you don’t give it light. This is not suppression of anger, this is not saying “I am not angry” when you clearly are. This is just saying “Hello Anger, my old friend. Nice to see you again.”
First this gives us time to move away, physically or mentally from the thing that made us angry5 and lets us reflect on the true nature of the situation. I bet the world is still spinning on its axis. I bet the stars are still in the sky, I bet grass is still coloured green. In short I bet it’s not that big of a deal and something can be found to negate a bad situation or at least work around it.
Being mindful and aware is like taking an angry child and soothing it. We deal with the root cause of the anger rather than perpetuating the anger and inflaming the situation more.
Next time you get angry, no matter where you are, just take a moment to recognise your anger and say hello to it – I guarantee it’ll make you feel a lot better than pounding pillows.
Share your own experiences with anger and other emotions in the office, in the comments below.
1. In the sense that he demonstrably showed us how never to behave as managers, which saved us a lot of learning and time in our future careers.
2. I’m not sure that the word ‘incredibly’ suffices, but for literary purposes, let it slide.
3. Absolutely this one. I think all people with suicidal tendencies come out and drive between my house and the office, Monday to Friday from 7.30 am till 9 am.
4. Literally punching, pummelling, pounding, pelting and punishing the pillow.
5. And saves us from being sued after we punch someone in the face rather than a pillow.