Career Advice Feb 08 2012

Ten Ways to Keep from Flipping Out at Work

By kelly eggers

You know the feeling. That co-worker of yours has been driving you nuts all day with constant chatting. Or perhaps it's a subordinate who can never get it right. Or maybe that last demand from an unreasonable boss.

So one day, you lose it. You explode in anger and frustration because things just aren't going right.

Tension is running high in workplaces these days as fewer people take on more work, often for less pay. Whether or not you handle that tension gracefully, however, can make or break your career.

"More careers have been derailed because of negative emotion than for any single factor," says Mark Maraia, president of Maraia & Associates, a relationship management consultancy. "Negative emotions skew communication more wildly than anything. If you and I don't deal well with anger, you won't be able to communicate with me, and I won't be able to communicate with you."

Developing an effective strategy to keep your emotions from "hijacking" your sense of reason can make the difference between keeping your job and losing it as well as preserving your professional reputation. "I would regularly lose my temper at one of my assistant managers," says Michael Monroe, a small-business owner and founder of management consultant, the Invisible Boss. "I'll never forget the day he quit; he met me at a restaurant so that I wouldn't make a scene when he gave me the news."

Here are 10 strategies for managing infuriating situations at work that won't leave you feeling guilty, even angrier, or ushered out the door.

Pick up on the Signs

Catching yourself before you reach the point of no return is the best way to avoid an angry meltdown. An increased heart rate and a raised voice are the first indicators, says Carol Goman, a nonverbal communication expert and author of "The Silent Language of Leaders."

"People will tell you to relax, but I have my clients physically increase their tension first," she says. "If you're alone, make fists and tense your muscles until you reach a point of controlling an outburst, and then you can relax."

Barry Maher, a workplace and communication expert based in California, suggests something as simple as taking deep breaths when you feel the pangs of fury coming on. "When we become angry, we often stop breathing momentarily just when our brains need oxygen the most," he explains. "Taking air in through your mouth also keeps you from letting just the wrong thing out of your mouth, because the first thing you say is very likely to be the worst thing you could have said."

Don't Ignore it

The worst thing to do when you start feeling furious is try to put a lid on it.

"Controlling anger isn't releasing it," Maraia says. "It's like a teapot. Psychologically, what happens is if you're really upset with someone, and don't express it in a way that helps you let it out, it'll build up until you get really upset over something really trivial."

It makes it harder to address what the actual problem is, he says, when four or five conversations accumulate into the straw that breaks the camel's back. "Unreleased negative emotion eventually manifests itself in illness and soured relationships, both at home and personally," Maraia says.

Go Someplace Else

One of the most effective ways to stave off a meltdown is to physically remove yourself from a stress-triggering situation. "It's OK to tell the other person that this has gone too far and we both need a few minutes to calm down and we can address the situation again," says Steve Siebold, author of "177 Mental Toughness Secrets of the World Class." "All employees should seek at least 20 minutes of solitude in their day to relax, regroup and re-energize," he says.

Some people take regular walks, others do yoga and still others may turn off their office lights and meditate. Doing something as simple as changing your clothes can change your state of mind, Goman says.

Of course, walking away may not be an option. You can't excuse yourself from a board meeting when you're starting to feel angry, for example, and exercising for an hour midday isn't always feasible.

Don't Completely Lose It

During his tenure as chief executive of Apple, Steve Jobs was notorious for angry outbursts. Some employees despised him for it, while others admired his ability to have a tantrum and move on. "Steve Jobs is the poster child illustrating that it's OK to get extremely angry at work," says Maraia. "He used it as a tool to get the best out of people, and if negative emotions are used correctly, they can do that. But most people aren't Steve Jobs."

Most people retain bits and pieces of anger, which flare up again later, even if they blow their top. "Releasing" anger doesn't require a major blowout, Maraia says. "You cannot control whether or not interactions happen with co-workers that are negative, or traumatic," Maraia says, "but it's totally a choice your reaction or response to whatever happens."

As soon as you feel frustration, try to replace negative, unproductive emotions with positive, constructive ones. "Acknowledge that you're pissed that the computer melted down, but do something to change your mindset," Maraia says. "Some people say they pray, others count to 10, some people can pull out a journal and write things out. It's about taking ownership, being responsible, and not repressing it or denying that you're angry."

Steer Clear of the Keyboard

"It is too easy to fire off a sarcastic or hostile response" with a nasty email, says Laurence Stybel, executive-in-residence at the Suffolk University School of Management and Entrepreneurship in Boston. "Once the 'send' button is pushed, the message is out of your control, and you can't deny having made the comments."

Consider Carol Bartz, the former Yahoo chief executive who, after being ousted, subsequently fired off an email telling the entire company she had been "fired over the phone" by Yahoo's chairman. That didn't do her reputation or her future job prospects any good.

"When there is an emotional situation, email is the worst way to handle it," says Goman. "The way the person on the other end receives it is totally out of your control."

Be Assertive, Not Aggressive

You don't always have time to let the anger subside. Try using assertive, as opposed to aggressive, language and mannerisms to express your feelings. This is especially true for women; when a woman calmly explains and rationalizes her frustration, it won't dampen her status as much as if she outwardly expresses anger, Goman says.

To encourage assertiveness, consider what you say as well as how you say it. "Aggressive language blames: 'You are such a jerk because you did X,'" Goman explains. "Assertive language focuses on your reactions: 'When you did X, it made me feel Y.'"

Assertive communication also implicitly acknowledges the opposing party's feelings, Maraia says. "Aggression is an intimidation tactic," he says. "When you have got someone who is aggressive, they don't give a flying you-know-what about what you want." Someone assertive will frame the problem in a way that avoids pointed insults, however, instead explaining that the problematic behavior is unacceptable because of its impact on the team or the company's bottom line, for instance.

Pair your words with assertive body language such as standing with your feet wider than your hips, your shoulders back and making direct eye contact. "Most times, in the corporate world, assertive is going to be far more effective than aggressive," Maraia says. "Short-term, you can win the battle with aggressiveness, but long-term, you'll lose the war."

Consider Your Reputation

Regardless of the target of your blowout, word will travel.

Jeff Camarda, CEO of Camarda Financial Advisors, a Florida-based portfolio manager, has witnessed this problem within his own company. "One of our key professionals had anger management and selfishness issues," Camarda says, which resulted in official warnings and fines. While the employee has corrected the problem, "he's lost the trust that he would act properly and in the organization's best interests, which sharply limits the authority he'd be given at this point."

"You may be right, and you may get your point across, but if you damage the relationship, you will lose in the long run," Goman says. "Collaborative environments are based on relationships with trust and mutual respect. If you destroy a relationship through the expression of anger, you will probably never get it back."

Sleep on it

Many experts believe in the 24-hour rule: Write your feelings out (in a journal, or electronically on a non-company device), wait 24 hours, then look at what you've written before deciding if it's something you want to send out.

"When you're angry or upset or sad or emotional, you're probably experiencing emotions you may not want other people to know about," says Stybel. "In sleep, we can sometimes process events that happened during the day and make more seasoned judgments."

Focus on the Actual Problem

When you're fuming and ready to unleash on a colleague, consider first if they are the problem, or if there is a below-the-surface issue.

"Don't attack a person, attack facts, things you personally have witnessed that are creating a problem," says Mary Hladio, president of Ember Carriers, a Cincinnati-based workplace consultancy. Were there specific rules or regulations that weren't followed, or is the problem rooted in implicit expectations you had for a particular project or assignment that may not have been clearly communicated?

"Set up a time to speak with the other parties involved…in a neutral and private space," she suggests, and clearly explain the root cause of the problem. "Discuss how that affects other employees, or the importance of daily responsibilities and performance."

Think About the Seven Dwarfs

It's not easy, but some experts believe distracting yourself can help you redirect your feelings.

"You can't hold two thoughts at the same time," says Maraia. "If I tell you not to think about a pink elephant, the only way to stop thinking about it is if you think about something else; you can either be upset, or choose to think about something else."

It can also help to think of something you haven't brought to mind in a while. "Activate memory recall," says Maher. "Just the act of dredging something from memory will tend to short-circuit that rush of anger and make it much easier to control yourself."

It doesn't have to be complex—thinking of an old nursery rhyme or the names of the Seven Dwarfs can help you concentrate on something else for a few minutes, which can be enough to help you return to the problem with a clearer frame of mind.

Write to Kelly Eggers




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