Workplace anger: compassion yields the best results

As a team meeting ends, an employee has an outburst. She rants for minutes about how the company expects too much in too little time with too few resources. She shoves a report across the table in your direction and storms out of the room, slamming the door behind her. The other team members turn in your direction, looking for your reaction.

While we all acknowledge a business code of conduct that suggests the outburst should not even occur, what are the guidelines that address our role as conflict observers? As her manager and leader of the team, should you sanction the employee to indicate to others the behavior is unacceptable? Or, should you speak with the employee to find out why she feels overwhelmed?

Respond with compassion, states Dr. Deanna Geddes, professor at Temple University, Fox School of Business. Geddes and Dr. Lisa T. Stickney, from University of Baltimore, conducted a study of 194 people who witnessed an incident of “deviant anger” in the workplace. The study showed that even a single act of support by a manager can improve workplace tension, while sanctions do nothing to alleviate it.

Indeed, mismanagement of workplace anger, such as responding in kind or ignoring it, can cost an organization, according to Craig Runde and Tim Flanagan, authors of Becoming a Conflict Competent Leader: How You and Your Organization Can Manage Conflict Effectively. Organizational costs range from absenteeism and poor decision-making, to poor working relationships. It can also cost the manager time dealing with future conflict, thereby diverting attention and resources from the business of conducting business.

Showing compassion could be considered an active/constructive response to conflict, explain Runde and Flanagan, both of whom hold positions with the Center for Conflict Dynamics at Eckerd College. These responses involve the manager taking action through perspective taking; creating solutions; expressing emotions; and reaching out. It may be difficult to call on these responses, particularly when trying to understand the angry employee’s perspective. However, research shows a constructive/active approach is well worth the effort. Most importantly, it eases tension amongst the team. In addition, managers able to resolve conflict using active/constructive responses are generally seen as more effective leaders and therefore, more promotable.

What can you do to manage conflict in a manner that highlights your personal leadership? Runde and Flanagan suggest the following:

  1. Understand the types of conflict, the triggers, and the responses to the conflict.
  2. Be self-aware; learn self-control.  (Understand your personal preferences, approaches, “hot buttons” and how to manage them.)
  3. Prevent destructive responses to conflict. (Be aware of conflict behaviors within your team and the level of intensity involved. Early intervention results in greater willingness to expire differences.)
  4. Foster constructive responses to conflict. This allows leaders to embrace conflict as a means to consider options and solutions previously unexplored.

As a positive psychology coach, I would be remiss if I failed to mention the role of positive psychology in responding to conflict. Thus, I offer a few suggestions on ways to integrate positive psychology tools into your response to conflict.

  1. Know your character strengths. We all have them in varying degrees. Identify which ones you use most often and think of ways you can use them as a manager who must deal with conflict among team members. Go to: to take the free assessment that helps you identify your signature strengths.
  2. Know the strengths of individual team members. You may not have access to your employees’ results of the above assessment or others (e.g. StrenthsFinder), but as a manager, it is imperative you understand what makes people tick. Think about their personal strengths as you approach someone to resolve conflict.
  3. Take an Appreciative Inquiry approach. Instead of looking at “what is broken” to resolve conflict, approach it from the perspective of “what works.” Engaging with the employee who escalates conflict using this approach just my give you both the results you are looking for!