Taming the inner Hulk: how to deal with anger at work

14 November
Illustration of enraged professional destroying his office

Authentic anger can be a transformational force for problem-solving – but it gets a bad rap. Amanda Bradley looks at the good and the ugly

Getting angry at work can leave you feeling like the Incredible Hulk.

How can we harness anger so it can tell us something useful, rather than derailing our day and possibly even our careers?

What can you do when you realise too late that you’ve hulked-out at work?

And what do you do when somebody loses it with you?


Understanding anger

Anger is important. It makes us act. Picture the scene: something has made you so cross that you make some calls, crack some heads together and then feel sated and justified because your intervention got everything fixed. Thank you, Anger!

Anger activates the amygdala, the brain’s emotional hub. Adrenalin chemicals are released, triggering the fight-or-flight response.

This pushes blood into our limbs, tenses our major muscles, raises our heart rate and focuses our attention on the thing that triggered our anger. It becomes all we can think about.

The chemicals we’ve produced are long-lasting. You might succeed in ignoring that physiological response at work, but then when you get home, the poor cat gets both barrels.


Calming the physical reaction

When we think about anger as a physiological response, it’s easier to see that ignoring it won’t work. The amygdala is part of the least-evolved part of our brains, the limbic system.

It can need help from the prefrontal cortex to regulate itself. If the prefrontal cortex tells the limbic system to put a lid on it, that lid will blow off sooner or later, possibly inappropriately.

Instead, begin by attending to your physiological response. Take a deep breath. If you can take a deep breath, it means you’re not running from a tiger. It tells the amygdala that the danger has passed, and it can stop making adrenaline.

The breath encourages blood back from your running muscles to your major organs. Massaging major muscles also helps, but rubbing your backside in the office can earn you some funny looks. Instead, try walking around to move the blood back.

“But I can’t leap up mid-meeting and take a walk,” I hear you cry.

Agreed, that could be tough.

But you can take the deep breath, give yourself a stretch, even stand up – it all helps move the blood back to where it should be. Then, when the meeting’s done, take the walk to make sure you’re back to level.

Even remembering to do this will start the process of engaging the prefrontal cortex and stop the limbic system from taking control of the situation and turning you green.

The cognitive experience of rage

Your body is attended to now, but what triggered the rage?

Considering what enraged us is vital.

Imagine you’re still in that meeting. Someone from tax has just told you the treasury aspects of the deal are unimportant. Tax needs will take precedence. Logically, you know that’s likely true. But somehow, it’s got you broiling.

Grab your notebook and pen, scribble down what made you cross and then think about why. Try free-associating. Write the first thing that comes to mind.

You might discover “I feel like I’m five and my big brother just told Mum they’re more important than me, again”.

Or you might realise “we’re overlooking the new exchange controls”.

Listening has given your more enlightened brain space to re-engage. If it was about your brother, you have spotted one of your triggers.

Look after yourself by reminding yourself that everything’s OK. And if it wasn’t about your brother, you might have saved the company from creating a cash trap.

The key thing is that you didn’t ignore the anger. You trusted that it had something important to tell you.


Translating physiology and cognitive experience into positive behaviour

Once you’ve looked after your body and listened to your mind, you can decide what you want to do with the information your anger has given you.

By now, you’re likely much more in control and are in a better position to express your point of view without the unwanted assistance of the Hulk.


The virtuous cycle

Handling anger with compassion and care lets your brain rightsize your emotional response.

Over time, your amygdala learns you’re listening and releases fewer chemicals when it needs to get your attention. The physiological response becomes less severe.

You can eventually become one of those frustrating yet admirably zen people who say, “That isn’t sitting right with me. I think there might be something we need to consider here.”

And because you’re not known for emotional outbursts and you trust yourself when you speak, people will take notice.


Fixing the fallout

Let’s say you didn’t manage to stay in control. You’ve been in the meeting, tax said what they said and suddenly, you’re sitting there in cutoffs and a ripped shirt wondering why the building’s collapsing.

What do we do when our anger gets the better of us?

This is where we need to get honest, fast. Shame will be doing its best to clean up the situation by telling us we’re way worse than we really were, so we might as well leave, or that it was all everyone else’s fault, so they deserved it.

One option puts a stop to the shame cycle: apologise. Unreservedly.

If you lose your cool at work, raise your voice or blow your top, you apologise. Apologise and turn that apology into action.

Change your behaviour. You might need to talk to a coach or mentor to get a grip on your anger. But only by admitting it to yourself and others can you start to fix the fallout.


What about when people Hulk-out at me?

This can be tough, especially if the Hulk in question is your boss.

The first thing to do, as always, is look after yourself. Their anger is their problem, not yours. Anger is contagious. Stand firm and keep calm by telling yourself that you’re OK and you don’t need to respond.

Again, go with the deep breath. Take care of your amygdala. Then try to exercise compassion. Depending on your working relationship, take the risk of asking them if everything’s all right.

Be human. Try and help. Meeting anger with compassion will often diffuse it and lead to an honest and authentic conversation. It may even increase trust between you.

If the person is justified in their anger and you have done something that needs fixing, you may just need to suck it up for now and fix it. But once the dust has settled, you may want to think about helping that person understand their impact on you.

Look at the quality of your working relationship to guide you, rather than hierarchy. Some of my most senior clients tell me they miss people telling them the truth about their working style. Be brave. Give the feedback. (For more on that topic, click here).

And finally, if rage is that person’s modus operandi, you may need to talk to HR.

We are all entitled to work in environments free from fear. The angry senior leader that you’re afraid of could be bullying and harassing other people, too.

In these instances, there’s little you can do except talk to HR to get help. If that doesn’t change things, remember you have a choice and an excellent qualification that can be useful to many companies.

Pick up the phone and ring a recruiter.

So, in short, anger is dangerous when it’s ignored, both as a giver and receiver of rage. But if we listen to anger and look after our physiological response, we can discover that it has a lot to tell us.


About the author

Amanda Bradley FCT is an executive coach at Liberty EQ

This article was taken from the October/November 2019 issue of The Treasurer magazine. For more great insights, log in to view the full issue or sign up for eAffiliate membership

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