Anger and Sadness in the Workplace

I deliberately suppress the inclination to think a person is being abrasive when they get frustrated at work.

The characters in this image are from the movie Inside Out and they represent sadness (blue), fear (purple), anger (red), and envy (green).

Colleagues get slapped with the terms “abrasive,” “aggressive,” and “adversarial” (in a punitive context)1 for saying things like:

“This is an ill-conceived design pattern to use here, and until we undo it this is only going to get more complicated.”

“You can’t defend your decision by citing your seniority. Your seniority doesn’t explain why that decision was made and it doesn’t entitle you to opaque autocracy over code.”

“This card is not ready to be worked on. It doesn’t even have a description.”

Yes, I have an emotional reaction to strongly worded statements. That is the pointEmotion tells me that I’d better be listening.

Office culture tries to mute emotion; we have this idea that expressing emotion is ‘unprofessional.’ That vehemently anti-confrontational sensibility ends up severely limiting our ability to express urgency or amplify our adamance about something in the workplace. Marco Rogers, veteran engineering manager and director at Yammer, Clover Health, and Lever, shares some important conjectures on Twitter about the origins and consequences of this mindset. His thread on the topic arrives at this observation:

So we express our real concerns in vague, watered down, papered-over ways that don’t address what we’re really thinking and don’t signal urgency to our coworkers but also don’t really hide the fact that we’re unhappy.

There has to be a better way.

Anger and Frustration

Anger is appropriate. Frustration is appropriate. It’s there to signal when something is urgent and needs to be fixed. If we express minor issues, urgencies, and emergencies all in the same tone, then we get surprised when others misinterpret a minor issue as an emergency or vice versa.

Also when we can never express emotion, we just bottle up all our frustrations for fear of looking unprofessional until they expand inside of us. At that point, we do one of three things:

  1. We blow our lids and scare everyone.
  2. We fume to our coworkers, which makes the problem worse by spreading negative energy through the team.
  3. We run around in a bad mood and get ticked off at everyone for everything, which spreads negative energy through the team and scares everyone.

Instead of solving the problems while they are still small, the problems grow until they are big…at which point, if we’re lucky, they’re harder to solve. If we’re unlucky, they can no longer be solved.

Holding in emotions also endangers our interpersonal relationships with coworkers, because as we bottle up our frustration we transfer that frustration from the inanimate thing we’re frustrated with to the human being associated with the other perspective. We should just have the argument about the thing, find a solution, and go back to working well together as opposed to holding our disagreement inside until it becomes about the person and not about the thing.

Sadness

Colleagues are not being hysterical or unstable when they get sad at work.

Sadness, like anger and frustration, is appropriate. There are even helpful ways for you to address it with your coworkers (Hint: the right way to address it is not ‘stop being sad, that’s unprofessional’).

I once gave a talk in response to the fact that not a single person at my workplace reached out to their gay coworkers after Pulse. When Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were murdered, managers did not reach out to their black colleagues. These events were not ignored because managers hated gay people and black people. Rather, ‘professionalism’ makes no room for sadness in the workplace and so managers (and the rest of us) have no idea how to address or manage sadness at work.

Sad people are not broken—their feelings are working how feelings are supposed to work. When you ask someone if they are sad, you are very specifically making room for sadness. This is helpful. People get sad because they need help. And if someone needs help, you make their life easier when you offer it. You can, in a one-on-one setting, address situations with colleagues that make them feel sad. You can even be sad with them. You might provide some comfort. Believe me, you’re not making a dent in company productivity by pulling them away; a distraught person isn’t getting much work done anyway.

Regarding the above: I suspect you are wondering where to draw the line on what to address. You don’t want to bring up tragic situations in every one-on-one, after all. Yeah, I agree. I don’t know exactly where the margin is, either, but I also don’t think being unsure about the margin is an adequate justification for leaving the margin at zero, never check on reports about anything sad.

Some options:

  • Start with high-profile unjustified murders of marginalized groups and work your way down from there.
  • Start with personal things in your reports’ lives, like a parent getting sick or a child struggling in school.
  • Start with the things that make you upset,* and check in with your reports on those things. You don’t need to be gay or black to be upset by the unjust murder of someone gay or black. You don’t need to be female to be upset by a memo that declares female engineers to be biologically inferior engineers. In fact, if you’re not upset by these things, your empathy level needs to rise for you to manage effectively.

*There’s a caveat. We’ll get to it soon.

Start somewhere. Don’t avoid starting just because you don’t know where you’ll end up.

So if negative emotions are appropriate, does that mean that all kinds of negative emoting are fine? No, it doesn’t.

Some Boundaries:

1. Speaking to someone you outrank in authority, social capital, or privilege.

I’ll temper my frustrations toward work done by someone I outrank. Why? Because I don’t want to give them imposter syndrome by accident. If people with less power get shouted down, they’re likely not to speak up again. I also don’t need emotion to get them to listen to me. I outrank them somehow, so they’re likely to listen to me anyway. If there’s a pattern of them not listening, then I’ll separately address that with them.

This same thing goes for sadness. I know I just said talk to your reports about things that make you sad. I’m going to caveat that: keep it to things that affect their lives at least as much as yours, and make sure this is you taking care of them—not the other way around.

Here’s an example of what not to do: one time, in a phone interview, the CTO of a company started telling me about how hurt he was feeling in his ongoing divorce. He then asked for counsel. I had known this person for four minutes. I think I said something awkward. I decided not to move forward with the interview process. This is also a prime example of how asking distraught people to be productive can backfire. Maybe this guy was just super distraught and felt responsible for doing my interview anyway. As a result, the company lost a candidate because my interviewer’s behavior indicated to me that company higher-ups might not notice when they were asking for uncompensated emotional labor.

2. Expressing anger when you do, in fact, have an anger problem.

Have your coworkers started thinking of you as the angry one who always hates everything? Either you’re expressing anger and frustration about things that don’t anger or frustrate you that much, or you get frustrated really easily. Ask yourself: do I sound like Steve Jobs right now? If you do, that is a bad thing. Apple succeeded in spite of Steve Jobs being an abusive jerk…not because of it.

If this is you, then expressing anger and frustration is going to stop working because people get habituated to your anger and no longer feel the pull to listen when you get worked up. So, to make the emotion trip switch work again, you amp up the anger. It’s a treadmill of doom.

In addition to the fact that this treadmill of doom is going to take more and more energy out of you while not getting you what you want, all your coworkers are going to start gravitating away from you. If it’s not an urgent message or the team is already listening, using emotion to express urgency and get people to listen is not necessary.

3. Attacking people

Compare the example statements from the beginning of this post to the following statements:

“Your architecture design sensibility is horrible. You suck at this.”

“You’re a lazy, arrogant cop-out and a failure as an explainer.”

“What the #&@% were you thinking?”

Can you spot the difference? These statements are about a person. This is called an ad hominem argument, it’s mean, and it’s not productive. It crosses the line from anger to animus, and it shows your coworkers that you don’t respect them and you don’t like them. You can get angry without abandoning respect.

4. Doubling Down

This is another, more subtle abandonment of respect, and for some reason it’s super common in tech. This is when one person expresses a thought, someone else tells them that that thought is inappropriate or offensive, and the first person doubles down by insisting that they were right, coming up with bizarre edge cases in which their original statement might be correct, throwing their entire identity behind the original statement, or calling it a ‘joke’ and then continuing to riff on it.

Despite appearances, this is not the first person thinking they’re right. Instead, this is the first person saying “I do not respect you. So no matter how angry you get, no matter how strong a signal you send to me to listen, I am not going to listen to you. Whether I was right or wrong is of no consequence because what you have to say matters so little to me that no amount of emotional amplification will make it worth my consideration.” If this is how you feel about your coworkers, you shouldn’t be working with them, and they’d really appreciate it if you’d stop working with them, too.

5. Shutting Down

This is when one person expresses a thought, someone disagrees, and the first person shuts down discussion by saying ‘well, I know better, so we’re doing it my way.’ Gaslighting is a particularly pernicious version of that in which the first person shuts down the conversation by telling the second person that they’re crazy/imagining things. If that sounds absurd to you, I regret to impart that, like doubling down, gaslighting is also unbelievably common in tech. One time I couldn’t get a code template working on my boss’s IDE that he ‘just downloaded, brand new version,’ and he suggested that maybe I had hallucinated the existence of the code template. In the end, when I checked his IDE version despite his numerous protests, we discovered that he had not, in fact, downloaded the latest version of the IDE. Had I not been ‘abrasive’ enough to check that version in spite of his protests, I would have left feeling defeated and incapable and he wouldn’t have learned anything.

Shutting someone down is another instance of  “I do not respect you and what you have to say does not matter to me.” I’ll repeat what I said above: if this is how you feel about your coworkers, you shouldn’t be working with them, and they’d really appreciate it if you’d stop working with them, too.

Conclusion

People get angry, frustrated, and sad. When we ban those emotions from the workplace, we do ourselves a disservice. Those emotions send valuable messages that we already know  how to interpret, and we can use them in the workplace to help us make better decisions about how to do our jobs and how to be with each other. You can help your coworkers feel safe expressing emotion, and you can improve at it over time.

The modern professional setting sets a boundary around emotions that basically says ‘negative emotions are unprofessional, don’t bring them in here.’ There are more realistic and more useful boundaries available for emoting in the workplace: don’t shout down someone you outrank, don’t use emotion to amplify a message that doesn’t need to be amplified, don’t attack people, and perhaps most importantly, don’t stop listening when your coworkers get upset. These boundaries bear a resemblance to the boundaries for emoting in personal relationships, so you already have some experience with them. We might as well use that experience to our benefit when we talk to the people with whom we spend most of our waking lives—our coworkers.

Whether it’s anger, frustration, sadness, or some other feeling that society codes as negative, I hope your coworkers can be emotional. I hope you feel safe to express emotion, too. People feeling free to express emotion is valuable because it’s a signal that we, as people, are calibrated to understand. Listen, it says.

1. One important thing worth noting: the terms ‘abrasive’ and ‘aggressive’ are not universally deployed. When colleagues make statements that happen to be unpleasant for someone to hear, those colleagues are more likely to get labeled ‘abrasive’ or ‘aggressive’ if they’re women or people of color. What’s troubling is that this happens regardless of how the labeled person makes the statement (that’s right—the problem is not your delivery style, ladies). What’s also troubling is that this happens regardless of the gender of the reviewer; if the statement was unpleasant for a woman to hear, that woman is just as likely as a man to label the orator ‘abrasive’ or ‘aggressive’ if the orator was a woman and not if they were a man. I have not seen a study that examines this dynamic with regard to race, but it’s worth noting that this is how structural oppression works; it has nothing to do with individual prejudices. It’s the aggregate of the preferences and prejudices we are taught, and our aggregate preferences do not favor hearing something we don’t want to hear—especially not from a woman or a person of color.

If you’re interested in reading more about building a great workplace, try:

The Seeds of a Great Company Culture

Smart is Not a Hiring Criterion

Puzzles: How a Social Experiment Built Coworking Community

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