We have all witnessed anger in the workplace. What effect will displays of anger have on employees who witness it? Will their work improve or decline? New research (Spektor et al., 2011) answers this question, and explains that it depends on the type of work the employees need to do.
The authors conducted three separate lab studies where participants became mock customer service employees who overheard a pre-recorded conversation between a customer and a customer service agent. Some of the participants listened to angry customers and some listened to pleasant, neutral customers. Then the participants tried to solve two types of problems, creative problems and simple analytical problems.
ANALYTICAL VERSUS CREATIVE THINKING
The researchers found that employees who listened to angry customers became better at solving analytical problems, which required basic analysis and narrow, rigid thinking, such as math problems. However, when asked to solve problems that require creativity and consideration of novel or alternative responses, those exposed to the angry customers solved fewer problems.
According to the authors, this occurs because exposure to anger limits the ways in which people interpret others’ behavior. This puts people in the right frame of mind to solve problems that require honing in on a specific correct answer. However, this mindset is not useful for situations that require creativity and making novel connections between loosely associated items or ideas.
WHAT ABOUT SARCASM?
The authors also created a separate condition where the mock employees listened to a conversation that involved sarcasm. In this condition, the customers expressed the same displeasure as the angry customers, but masked their anger by using sarcastic comments. The participants who listened to this conversation actually increased their capacity for creativity.
Why did that happen? Sarcasm is really just a diluted form of anger, say the authors, but what’s unique about sarcasm, is that it requires the listener to actively and carefully interpret the true intent of the speaker. This requires the listener to engage in more complex thought patterns. Those same complex thought patterns will then be useful in helping the person solve problems that require creativity.
PRACTICAL IMPLICATIONS FOR ORGANIZATIONS
So what do we do with this study? First of all, managers need to realize that open displays of anger toward their subordinates may not push them toward higher performance. Although displays of anger might increase employee performance on simple, strictly analytical tasks, it will have negative consequences when employees need to be creative and solve novel problems.
A second implication of this study is that displays of anger affect even those employees who were not the target of the wrath. In the experiments, the employees merely listened to a conversation that involved a customer expressing anger toward a different person. This represents another potential pitfall of displaying anger in the workplace. Anger directed at a specific person could negatively impact everyone within earshot, an important consideration when choosing when and how to express displeasure.
Finally, if people must express anger, it might be better to throw in a bit of humoristic sarcasm. Although it may be unpleasant, sarcasm has the added advantage of encouraging the listener to think carefully about the speaker’s intent. As long as the listener keeps thinking, they may still have the ability to engage in the creative thinking required to complete their job successfully.
Miron-Spektor, E., Efrat-Treister, D., Rafaeli, A., & Schwarz-Cohen, O. (2011). Others’ Anger Makes People Work Harder Not Smarter: The Effect of Observing Anger and Sarcasm on Creative and Analytic Thinking. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96(5), 1065-1075.