Anger in the workplace is killing people. In an average week, one employee is killed and 25 are seriously injured nationally in violent assaults by current or former co-workers. And nearly 80 percent of the killers left warning signs before going over the edge, according to a USA Today report that examined 224 fatal cases.
Managers can prevent blow-ups, contends Mitchell H. Messer, therapist and executive director of the Chicago-based Anger Institute, if they move in time to defuse a disgruntled employee's anger.
"A lot of people resent their supervisor's tactics, but they don't kill people," Messer says. They can become so resentful that they become insubordinate, which leads to dismissal. But insubordination can be a prelude to a violent act. Rather than dismissing such an employee, Messer believes, his supervisor or manager or Employee Assistance Program should intervene. That way, Messer says, "the employee might discover why he was insubordinate in the first place."
Messer's anger management clinics teach managers and supervisors to provide on-the-spot "emotional first aid" to avoid workplace violence. "If these people were bleeding from a cut finger, managers would know where to send them. But when someone is angry, we don't know what to do," he continues.
He teaches managers to ask the employee focusing questions such as, "I know you're angry, but what angers you most about the incident?"
The employee's perception of the incident may be very different from the manager's. He may say, "It was unfair of you to promote the other person and not me."
The manager shouldn't defend that decision because it's not the issue. He must ask, "What angers you most about this unfairness?"
If the employee answers, "Why does this always happen to me?" the manager will recognize that the employee perceives himself as a victim of unfairness every time he doesn't get his way.
The manager then asks, "What angers you most when you feel like a victim under these circumstances?"
If the employee says, "I always feel so stupid, as if I could have seen it coming. I walked right into it," then the superior should ask, "Who are you angry at now?"
And that's when the employee realizes he's angrier at himself than at the supervisor or the situation.
"Not only is he a victim of the circumstance, but he blames himself for his own victimization," Messer points out. "Since he can't beat himself up, he sometimes displaces his anger violently at his supervisor or co-workers. Sometimes it can have fatal results."
Managers shouldn't try to talk employees out of anger by saying, "Things aren't that bad" because it would be an insult to a worker's intelligence. "Things are that bad in his eyes," Messer says.
The underlying issue is the employee's feelings that he's stupid, out of control and worthless. If he loses out on a promotion, gets a pay cut, or is fired, the disappointment confirms his pre-existing conviction that misfortune is all he deserves. "And that drives him crazy," says Messer.
"The Anger Institute teaches a specific definition of self-respect that gives some people relief from the pain of their self-hatred," he adds. "We define self-respect as a feeling that one is a worthwhile human being in spite of one's faults and imperfections."
In other words, self-respect should not be defined in terms of raises, promotions, financial worth or even gainful employment. Many people make the mistake of taking a career reversal personally, as if it were a reflection on their worth as a person, and it is not.
One way the employee can improve his self-respect is by writing his anger down in a letter addressed to the person who has angered him most. If he isn't comfortable writing, any medium will do. He can speak into a tape, draw a picture or write a poem.
"We also suggest talking about the fact that anger is not always irrational," Messer added. "In may cases it is justified and the individual has a legitimate grievance, such as when hard-working, talented people are fired in mass layoffs."
For their own mental health, those people should write an anger letter -- to themselves -- explaining that they resent the unfairness of what has happened and that they are angry at themselves for having been so good to the company. And they will see they are still worthwhile human beings.