A misunderstood emotion, anger plays a vital role in society, including the workplace, according to research by a professor from Temple University’s Fox School of Business.
Dr. Deanna Geddes’ research, which explores both the negative and positive aspects of emotions in the workplace, shows anger expression increasingly equated with verbal abuse or non-physical assault, rather than recognized for its social function of initiating necessary change by identifying improprieties and injustices.
Geddes’ workplace anger research was featured recently in the Financial Times. Along with her co-author Dr. Dirk Lindebaum, of the Management School at the University of Liverpool, Geddes co-chaired a showcase symposium titled, “In Defense of Anger: The Significance of an Under-Appreciated Moral Emotion” at the 74th Annual meetings of the Academy of Management which took place in Philadelphia.
Chair of Fox’s Human Resource Management department, Geddes in previous papers has proposed what she terms “a dual-threshold model” that clarifies when expression and suppression of the emotion is likely to produce positive or negative results.
For her latest research, she tapped into surveys conducted from 2003 to 2010 by the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS). Following incidents it deemed aggressive and violent, the NHS – Europe’s top employer and the fifth-largest in the world – initiated policies to quell such activity, coinciding with the launch of an advertisement campaign to caution against perpetration of verbal or physical abuse with possible litigation or intervention by authorities.
Geddes said unfortunately the NHS’ designation of verbal abuse is so “loosely defined” that any undesirable anger expression, including raising one’s voice at a caregiver could qualify as verbal abuse or non-physical assault. Calling expressed anger abuse and assault, according to her, was simply inaccurate.
“Anger expression has no inherent intention to harm,” Geddes said. “In fact, it reflects the belief that the angry individual was harmed.”
Given the results of NHS’ survey, Geddes said some response to protect NHS workers from actual assault is completely justified, but NHS went overboard.
“The No. 1 reason given for a patient’s purported verbal abuse of an NHS employee was their mental health condition, closely followed by the length of time they had waited to see a health professional, or a problem understanding instructions, or even dissatisfaction with the service they were receiving,” Geddes said. “How can a health organization threaten to arrest someone because of a mental health condition, or because of their concern over the health condition of either themselves or another?”
Geddes defended anger expression that is not simply self-serving and reasoned that its functionality should remain dependent upon a particular situation, with those in positions of power doing all they can to assist and exercise forbearance toward the angry, distressed individual.Geddes said unintended consequences that carry a societal impact arise if consumers are not permitted to express even intense emotion and dissatisfaction with service providers.
“We’re seeing more instances of this in the airline industry where complaints toward flight attendants can be reclassified as terroristic threats and passengers are themselves threatened with police involvement once off a plane,” Geddes said. “It’s a fine line, I understand, because safety issues are always going to be important and we’re not saying people should yell at a service provider. But this is intriguing and scary, that zero tolerance policies are creating a homogeneous, suppressive environment for human emotion.”