People are angry on the job these days.

by Nina M. Riccio, M.A.’09

  • Whenever the secretary is on vacation, Gwen, a busy, mid-level manager at a large company, is asked by her boss to field the phone calls at the front desk and distribute the mail and paychecks.
  • Rob spent a year of long days and late nights working to promote a family of magazines, only to be told that his entire department was to be let go and the work outsourced.
  • As the only surviving member of what was once a team of four, Janice is expected to single-handedly maintain most of her department’s services.

Welcome to the workplace of 2010, replete with lay-offs, budget cuts, and salary reductions, plus the routine interpersonal interactions that leave a lot of people feeling disrespected, unappreciated … and angry. While emotions are difficult to quantify, it doesn’t take a lot of research to determine that those are all ingredients in a toxic recipe for anger.

Don Gibson“With restructuring and layoffs, people are working harder than ever since productivity is still expected to increase,” said Dr. Donald Gibson, professor of management and chair of the Management Department at Fairfield’s Charles F. Dolan School of Business. The current economic downturn has lent a new immediacy to a subject area that has long interested him; workplace anger – what causes it, how to handle it, and how management might reap some benefits from it.

Our work lives can be sources of both great stress and great reward, continued Dr. Gibson, yet for the most part they are not discussed at the office.

“The central ideology surrounding emotions in organizations is that they are irrational, idiosyncratic disturbances that are best controlled and kept under cover. However, by observing how emotions are expressed and becoming aware of their own and others’ emotional tendencies, managers can increase the chances that their emotions are expressed in ways that enhance individual and organizational effectiveness,” he said.

In other words, not all emotions are negative. Acknowledge and deal with them, and they can lead to some positive changes.

While workplaces vary wildly in their responses to employees’ emotional needs, most have come a long way since pioneering industrialist Henry Ford famously quipped: “Why do I get the whole person, when all I need is a pair of hands?”

Said Dr. Gibson: “What we are learning is that organizations that take into account employee emotions – in the sense of trying to enhance their work experience and contribute to work satisfaction – tend to have better work outcomes.”

Though Dr. Gibson has been ensconced in the relatively polite atmosphere of academia since 1995, teaching “Leadership” and “Managing People for Competitive Advantage,” among other courses, it wasn’t always that way. He spent the first few years of his career in the more volatile entertainment industry, managing post-production work and coordinating motion picture and television distribution for Lorimar Productions.

“The industry had no problem recruiting people, and they worked with the attitude that everyone was replaceable. Managers didn’t have to manage well, and it was a culture that excused outbursts and tantrums,” he said. “It was an interesting place, but I learned more about how not to manage than to manage. The experience made me want to study how to effectively manage people, especially their emotional sides in the workplace.”

He went on to earn a Ph.D. in management from the University of California, Los Angeles, and the bulk of his research since has been in organizational behavior. Over the past two years, for example, he collaborated with Drs. John McCarthy (psychology) and Carl Scheraga (strategy and technology management) on a paper hypothesizing that one source of cultural differences in managerial style is how individuals from different cultures process their language and syntax neurologically. (For a web exclusive story on Fairfield’s research into how native language affects the way people of different cultures make decisions, see our Web extra features.)

Page 1 of 3 | Next page