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Anger In The Workplace

July 20 2008 - Research published in Psychological Science earlier this year reported differences in attitudes to men and women who lose their temper in the workplace. In three separate studies, psychologists Victoria Brescoll from Yale University and Eric Uhlmann from Northwestern University found that while such outbursts tend to be accepted or even rewarded in men, women are judged less competent as a result.

Hillary Clinton's recent presidential campaign raised the question of whether anger was damaging to a female candidate. Researchers found this to be unequivocally the case unless the anger was in response to treatment of a family member.

Victoria Brescoll commented:

"An angry woman loses status, no matter what her position."

Researchers showed participants videos of actors applying for a job. They were asked to rate them on their perceived competence and whether they should be hired, the degree of responsibility they should be given, and how much they should get paid. Both men and women assigned higher status, salary and competence to men expressing anger. However, when actors expressed sadness, women applicants were ranked equally to men in status and competence but not in salary.

The second study focused on lower-status jobs and compared angry applicants to those not displaying any emotion. Once again, angry men were valued more highly than angry women. However, these differences were not apparent in the emotionally neutral group. The third study allowed women actors to explain why they were angry, resulting in improved ratings. However, when men gave an explanation it tended to be interpreted as a sign of weakness.

Victoria Brescoll concluded:

"Whether you are running for president or looking for a clerical job, you cannot afford to get angry if you are a woman."

'Bad Apples' at Work

A study from the University of Washington Business School published in Research in Organizational Behavior in 2007 examined how negative behavior by one person in an organization can impact on teams and groups. Researchers describe these individuals as "bad apples" acting like a virus within teams, with the capacity to "upset or spoil the whole apple cart".

Together with Terence Mitchell, a professor of management and organization and UW psychology professor, William Felps, a doctoral student and lead author, decided to investigate the effect of a negative co-worker on workplace atmosphere after his wife experienced the phenomenon. She characterized her work environment as cold and unfriendly but this changed when a co-worker described as "particularly caustic" and "always making fun of other people" was away ill for several days.

William Felps explained:

"And when he was gone, my wife said that the atmosphere of the office changed dramatically. People started helping each other, playing classical music on their radios, and going out for drinks after work. But when he returned to the office, things returned to the unpleasant way they were. She hadn't noticed this employee as being a very important person in the office before he came down with this illness but, upon observing the social atmosphere when he was gone, she came to believe that he had a profound and negative impact. He truly was the 'bad apple' that spoiled the barrel."

The researchers analyzed about two dozen studies focusing on workplace team and group interaction, with specific reference to the impact of individuals whose negativity may be expressed in various ways: not doing their fair share of work, being "chronically unhappy and emotionally unstable", or being aggressive and bullying. They found that it only takes one such "toxic" team member to provide the catalyst for organizational dysfunction. In a follow-up survey, they found most people they could identify at least one "bad apple" from their own workplace experience.

The researchers reviewed various working environments (including manufacturing, fast food, and universities) where tasks and assignments were performed by groups of approximately 5 -15 individuals with interdependent jobs or where significant interaction was necessary. They explain that employees in such circumstances tend to be less tolerant and are more likely to challenge negative behaviors.

In one study of about 50 manufacturing teams, they found those with a disagreeable or irresponsible member were significantly more likely to perform poorly, experiencing conflict, poor communication and lack of cooperation between team members.

Terence Mitchell commented:

"Most organizations do not have very effective ways to handle the problem. This is especially true when the problem employee has longevity, experience or power. Companies need to move quickly to deal with such problems because the negativity of just one individual is pervasive and destructive and can spread quickly."

The study identified three ways in which group members may react to a negative member. Motivational intervention, where concerns are expressed and the person asked to change; if this proves unsuccessful rejection may follow where the individual is removed from the situation. These strategies require team members to have sufficient power; lack of power leads people to become frustrated and distracted. This leads to the third strategy, being defensive - common coping mechanisms include denial, social withdrawal, anger, anxiety and fear. Researchers explain that as trust weakens along with the positive culture, members physically and psychologically disengage themselves from the team. The study concluded that negative behavior has a greater impact than positive behavior.

Terence Mitchell said:

"People do not expect negative events and behaviors, so when we see them we pay attention to them, ruminate over them and generally attempt to marshal all our resources to cope with the negativity in some way. Good behavior is not put into the spotlight as much as negative behavior is."

The researchers differentiate between the negativity of "bad apples" and innovative challenging employees "who think outside the box" and may not always be appreciated as a result. If negative individuals emerge after selection screening, researchers suggest that organizations should allocate them to independent work positions where possible; or the only option may be to let them go.

William Felps commented:

"Managers at companies, particularly those in which employees often work in teams, should take special care when hiring new employees. This would include checking references and administering personality tests so that those who are really low on agreeableness, emotional stability or conscientiousness are screened out."

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