The Right Way to Obtain Mad at Work

Source:   —  April 23, 2016, at 0:42 AM

It conjures up images of hotheaded bosses who intimidate their employees, or creative types with huge egos who can't stand being critiqued. From multiple news outlets, we witness disgruntled coworkers "going postal" and resorting to violence after becoming enraged at something or somebody.

by Deanna Geddes, Dirk Lindebaum

Workplace annoyance frequently gets a horrible rap. It conjures up images of hotheaded bosses who intimidate their employees, or creative types with large egos who can't stand being critiqued. From multiple news outlets, we witness disgruntled coworkers "going postal" and resorting to violence after becoming enraged at something or somebody. Or maybe we think of the everyday hassles that stir up resentment at work, from coworkers not meeting our expectations to passive-aggressive emails.

But not all annoyance is created equal. Some types of anger -- particularly "ethical anger," a concept we delineate in a recent paper published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior -- may be crucial to the health of our institutions.

Ethical annoyance is triggered not because of something done (or not done) to us, but because of wrongdoings and ethical violations perpetrated against others. We obtain mad witnessing unfair or degrading acts against a colleague, biased and insensitive management practices, or even seriously flawed company policies and harmful products. Ethical annoyance is an intense emotional state stemming from the violation of a recognizable ethical standard that impacts others more than oneself. Importantly, it also prompts us to act to make better the situation, even in the face of significant personal risk.

When the duration "moral" is applied to anger, it necessarily implies positive intentions: We seek to uphold ethical standards, ensure objective treatment, or defend those who are vulnerable. As such, ethical annoyance differs from other forms of annoyance in three major ways:

one. Universal standards are violated. Ethical annoyance is triggered by the violation of universal standards of justice, ethics, or human dignity, rather than individualized, idiosyncratic preferences, values, or ideology. For example, in contrast to getting mad about a perceived personal insult by a coworker or boss, ethical annoyance is more likely to emerge when an employee witnesses a coworker unfairly accused or punished when he wasn't responsible. Worse still would be a situation of managers bullying or intimidating their employee, demonstrating blatant abuse of their position of power. Universal standards are core to the ethical fabric of society; society in common and healthy individuals in specific tend to be equally outraged at their violation.

two. We perceive concern for others. Ethical annoyance reflects an altruistic orientation, where one'south focus is on the needs and rights of others, more than our own. Rather than be upset because of our personal disadvantage or inconvenience, our angst stems from desiring to assistance others, particularly those who are particularly vulnerable. I may be upset because you yelled at me, but getting angry -- although justified -- benefits primarily my own ego and pride. Becoming mad while witnessing another'south berating, however, would more likely demonstrate ethical anger. Selfishness or self-centeredness is antithetical to Ethical anger.

three. We get corrective action. Moral annoyance prompts us to do something to assistance make better the situation. While we recognize that annoyance is an emotion, not an action. If annoyance doesn't prompt some action meant to exact the situation, then it lacks the "moral" moniker. Feeling indignant about someone'south mistreatment but doing nothing to help, because "it'south none of my business" or "someone else can/should/will handle this situation," isn't ethical anger. To refer back to the previous examples, to qualify as ethical anger, the colleague witnessing the unfair reprimand should also support or defend the embattled coworker. Only then can we speak of the corrective power of ethical anger.

Whistleblowing frequently involves Ethical anger -- for example, in the celebrated case portrayed in the one thousand nine hundred ninety-nine film The Insider. In one thousand nine hundred ninety-sixth, Jeff Wigand (then Vice President of Research and Development at Brown and Williamson Tobacco and responsible for developing reduced-harm cigarettes) blew the whistle that his company intentionally increased the quantity of nicotine in their cigarettes, thereby enhancing their addictive nature. After initially voicing his objections interior the company, he reported being harassed and receiving anonymous death threats.

In a one thousand nine hundred ninety-six interview with Mike Wallace of sixty Minutes, Wigand stated that he "got angry" about the company'south decision to abandon the safer cigarette and ultimately found the bravery to speak up. However, his whistleblowing brought significant danger to him and his family at the same time that it exposed unethical practices by U. S. tobacco companies. In the end, Wigand'south actions potentially benefitted millions of people, who'd have been exposed to this particularly harmful but legal product.

Maybe more ordinary and less dramatic -- although number less valuable -- are personal experiences when our own annoyance prompts us to speak up on behalf of colleagues experiencing injustice, intimidation, bullying, discrimination, cruelty, or disrespect. Moral annoyance is a type of "energy" we can utilize to overcome what for many of us is an inclination to stay quiet or uninvolved in conflict. As political philosopher Edmund Burke reminds us, "The only thing required for the triumph of evil is for excellent men (or women) to do nothing."

The benefits of encouraging employees to speak up when they witness threatening behaviors, unfair accusations, or coercive tactics are plentiful. Minimally, challenging these ethical violations in the workplace exposes the acts and perpetrators. Allowing space for the expression of ethical annoyance at work can promote environments of support, compassion, courage, integrity, and fairness. Managers who authorize or even encourage employees to express ethical annoyance can memorise not only what's happening but also -- and maybe more importantly -- what needs to modify in their realms of influence. Displays of annoyance at work signal something is incorrect that needs management'south immediate attention and careful response.

Are we saying we wish more mad workplaces? Yes and no. Self-serving expressions of annoyance should always be kept to a minimum. However, if we witness something that's so incorrect that it makes us angry, say something... do something. Organizations and their individual members benefit when morally-wrong behaviors are addressed and eliminated.

Are you potentially sticking your neck out by expressing ethical anger? Yes. Is the risk worth taking, given the chance to benefit someone else? Yes! Ethical annoyance shows we care about others, not just ourselves. At the same time, it can assistance exact many of the woes we experience at work and in society. As one of us argues in a new essay, a world without annoyance would be a world without "critical corrections," and that'south a world we don't wish to live in -- number matter how peaceful and harmonious it appears.

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