Staying Cool Under Pressure: Avoiding Anger

scupAt work, Stacy Platteter used to worry about everyone else’s needs. Even if she was upset, she’d focus on others before dealing with her own problems. “I was a real people pleaser,” admits Platteter, 41, a physical therapist in Highland Park, IL. Inevitably, she began to feel angry and frustrated, then helpless and depressed. Fortunately, Platteter got counseling and learned to be more assertive–and to look after herself. Now, for example, when her patients complain about their slow progress, she doesn’t try to make it all okay. Instead, she honestly tells them that the process of healing can be gradual, even maddeningly slow.

If you feel angry at work, too, you’ve got plenty of company. Last year a Gallup poll of 1,010 workers found that 60 percent experienced some degree of anger on the job, up sharply from 49 percent the previous year. For certain people, the changing nature of the workplace is partly to blame. “These days, more is expected of employees, but there is less job security to balance the greater demands,” says Hendrie Weisinger, Ph.D., a Westport, CT, clinical psychologist and author of Anger Workout Book (William Morrow, $12) and Emotional Intelligence at Work (Jossey-Bass, $25). “The result is people who feel increasingly frustrated, anxious, and angry.”

Heightened anger can spell double trouble. First, it can make life on the job not much fun. Second, fury over work can make your home life tense–since few of us can completely separate our jobs from the rest of our lives. That’s why it’s essential to learn to manage your work anger before it harms you.

Thankfully, coping with feelings is taken more seriously in and out of the workplace today. Increasingly, employers are sending their managers to such classes as Managing Emotions in the Workplace. And hospitals and adult-education centers have begun offering anger-management classes to the public.

Still, it’s mostly up to you to manage anger properly at work. After talking with psychologists, management consultants, and other experts, we’ve come up with ten key rules for helping you keep your cool.

1. Admit it when you’re angry. “Often women cry or get depressed when they’re just plain old mad,” says Sheila Peck, a clinical social worker in Island Park, NY, who runs anger-management groups for women. And that’s not helpful. If you don’t tune in to your anger, you could end up stressing yourself out–to the point where you get sick or leave a job prematurely. Weisinger’s mantra: “Anger is useful. It’s a cue that something is wrong”

So if you tend to camouflage your frustration by forcing a smile or sinking into sorrow, ask yourself: “Am I angry about something, but afraid to face it?” Avoiding your true feelings won’t make them go away–they’ll just go underground.

2. Remember, it’s not always about you. “Women frequently take criticism as a reflection of their own worth, when they shouldn’t,” says Mitchell Messer, director of the Anger Clinic, a counseling service in Chicago. When Durene Cupp, 46, was hired two years ago as a manager for ITT Night Vision, a tube manufacturer in Roanoke, VA, many of her new coworkers seemed unfriendly and treated her suspiciously. “Hardly anyone even said hello,” recalls Cupp. “I would go home crying every night.” Then Cupp wised up. She began talking to people individually, asking how they were coping with the company’s restructuring. Cupp soon learned that her colleagues were angry and scared, viewing newcomers as potential threats to their jobs. “It really had nothing to do with me,” she says.

3. Let molehills be molehills. Sometimes we make matters worse by getting angrier than necessary. Karen Nienhauser, 37, a freelance publicist in Hartsdale, NY, once sent out a press release with a typo and couldn’t sleep for a week. “I was so mad at myself for screwing up. I just couldn’t accept that people make mistakes.” Of course it’s important to do your best, but don’t beat yourself up for minor gaffes. If you’re not sure whether you’ve made a major faux pas or not, ask a colleague for a reality check. “I’m glad that I take my work seriously,” says Nienhauser. “But sometimes I just lose perspective.”

hbatdp4. Figure out your boss’s hot buttons and then don’t press them! “View people as they are, rather than as they should be,” advises Deborah Bright, Ph.D., author of On the Edge and In Control (McGraw-Hill, $17.95). If your supervisor, for example, is often crabby in the afternoon, try to schedule meetings or ask for assignments early in the morning.

5. Act smart when you’re mad. Anger, like pain, is a great motivator. So when you get mad on the job, turn the situation into an opportunity to make a positive change. Say you’ve had to work late every night on a last-minute project. Rather than sound off to your spouse, be direct with your manager. Simply say, for instance, “I want to help you out, but I’m frustrated because I feel I’ve been working more than my share.” Your boss then has the chance to improve matters. Scary as this may seem at first, most astute managers want feedback. Dalia Vernikovsky, 45, who manages a staff of 16 at a manufacturing company in San Jose, CA, says, “I would much rather have someone tell me that she’s angry than have her grumble to a colleague. If I hear it, I can deal with it.”

ANOTHER TIP: Deal with anger at work on the spot, or at least on that same day. In general, little tempests are always better than big storms. Theodore Isaac Rubin, M.D., in his best-seller The Angry Book (Touchstone, $11), observes: “People often wait and wait to get things off their chest–and then finally approach the time of the big blowup with trepidation. Small blowups are more straightforward, less traumatic, and more thorough in their house-cleaning effects.”

6. Stay cool. About to lose control? Count to ten and take a few deep breaths, or, if you’re really agitated, excuse yourself for a minute and get a glass of water. As they say on Ally McBeal, “take a moment.” Then, once you’ve calmed down, Bright suggests asking yourself, “What do I want to get out of this situation?” so you can figure out what will help you get past the anger. You might want an apology or perhaps just an opportunity to vent. The key is staying focused on the problem rather than launching into a screaming match that could make matters worse. “See yourself and the situation from the outside in,” Bright says.

7. Pick your battles. Some work woes are not worth fighting over. Weisinger’s rule of thumb: “Ask yourself, is this something that won’t go away over time?” If you think the problem will fester and make you angrier, deal with it now. But if you realize this too shall pass, let it go. You don’t want to be seen as the office complainer. Also, determine how important the issue is to your job satisfaction. If your boss is making unwanted sexual innuendos, certainly speak up. But if it’s simply the bad office coffee, save your breath for more critical matters.

8. Vent to a confidant–or to yourself. Inevitably, you’ll face situations beyond your control–your company may be downsizing, your boss may be crumbling under a personal crisis, or you may have to work on a project that is impossibly stressful. In such cases, your best move is venting to an outsider. “If I’m having a difficult time, I often call a friend with good business sense,” says Nienhauser.

If you’re about to explode, consider writing a furious letter about the situation–and then putting it away. Platteter frequently takes time out during the week to rage on paper: “It gets the feelings out of my head and helps me to stop obsessing. It’s very liberating.” Warning. Don’t send a nasty e-mail or note to someone at work-including a neutral pal-as a way of blowing off steam. You never know where it’ll land.

9. Work it out–literally. Sometimes, anger can be hazardous to your health, turning into headaches, insomnia, and even heart trouble. When work tension escalates, hop on the StairMaster, take a kickboxing or karate class, fit in a tennis game, or treat yourself to a long walk.

10. Don’t be a martyr. If, after all your smart tactics, you’re still stuck with a mean boss or a rotten set of clients, and your temperature is rising, look for an out. Asserting yourself is often seen as a sign of strength. You’re saying that you can’t do your best work under high-stress conditions. If you believe your supervisor will not be sympathetic, consider going to human resources with your grievance. If you still aren’t getting anywhere, you might need to find a new job.

With any luck, that won’t be necessary. Once you start dealing with anger directly, chances are you’ll wind up more relaxed—and more productive–at work.

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