HR Magazine

Helping Employees Cool It

“We had a lot of conflict. It was a hostile work environment,” says Connie Schmoll, executive director of Shelter House Inc., a nonprofit women’s and children’s domestic-abuse shelter in Willmar, Minn. The conflict involved staff members, not residents, and it led to some mistrust and disrespect and “a lot of gossip.”

So, to resolve the tensions, last September Schmoll and the board of directors invited anger management training specialist Anna Maravelas, founder of TheraRising, a training company in St. Paul, Minn., to conduct in-house workshops and individual and two-person sessions. The training was mandatory for all 39 employees.

“I met with … people individually to get a history of their relationships,” Maravelas says. Then during two-person sessions, “we identified the patterns that caused rifts and specific changes to each person’s behavior in the future.” She also helped the organization develop a code of conduct.

The results were positive. Now, “people truly care about one another,” Schmoll says. The training “gave people specific tools for opening a dialogue to work things out. Communication is much more open.”

However, a person can have problems with anger without screaming obscenities or banging his fist on the table. “Anger comes in two flavors: hot and cold contempt,” says Maravelas, a therapist and author of How to Reduce Workplace Conflict and Stress  (Career Press, 2005). “Hot contempt is what we think of as traditional anger: red face and bulging veins, what I call ‘flooding.’ But 90 percent of workplace conflict is cold contempt: gossip, back-stabbing, withdrawal, simmering resentment and the desire to see the other person fail.”

Either type of anger can cost a company in lost productivity and higher health insurance premiums. “A steady diet of anger can be a better predictor of heart disease than smoking or high cholesterol,” Maravelas says.

In fact, the May 2000 issue of the American Heart Association journal Circulation  reported on a study that found “proneness to anger” increased individuals’ likelihood of having heart disease and heart attacks, regardless of established biological risk factors such as high blood pressure. In the study, the angriest people had twice the risk of coronary heart disease as did their calmer counterparts.

It’s just as important to identify and address less-obvious anger and passive aggressive behaviors, experts say. “An employee has trouble with anger if she sits in stony silence and colleagues avoid her for fear of setting her off,” Maravelas says. “My clients estimate their managers spend about 40 percent of their time mopping up messes created by anger and withdrawal.”

To identify employees with less-obvious anger problems who need conflict management training, Karen Borre, organizational development manager at MTS Systems Inc., an engineering company in Eden Prairie, Minn., says: “I don’t sit at my desk much. I watch who says what to whom, how processes are working.” She also talks to supervisors about potential conflicts in their departments.

Determine the approach. There are three approaches to anger management training: one-day workshops, small-group facilitations and one-on-one therapy sessions. HR professionals should select an approach based on the type of conflict that needs to be addressed.

Employees who show signs of passionate anger, such as throwing chairs or banging fists, should receive one-on-one counseling in cognitive behavioral techniques to manage their anger. If the anger is more than just conflict, Borre refers them to the employee assistance program.

However, the vast majority of employees don’t exhibit these obvious outward signs. For those who have problems with resentment, a workshop followed by small-group facilitation can work well. For instance, Borre says, MTS holds “an eight-hour seminar, and then has the facilitator do one-on-one interviews before sitting down with the whole group and brainstorming” how to move forward. Her outside trainer charges $7,000 to $10,000 for the main workshop and facilitation sessions.

Borre says conflict management training is optional but strongly recommended for all employees at MTS. “Most people say, ‘I don’t need that; I’m fine.’ I try to characterize it with the right language” to encourage “targeted” employees to attend, she says. “You have to sell it. You want people to get better at communicating with each other.”

“Anger is a symptom,” Maravelas says. “You need to go for the root cause.” She tells of a high-technology manufacturer where “the top 12 vice presidents were literally yelling at each other in meetings and going home with migraines.” After the conflict management workshop, they started tackling the reasons for conflict.

Maravelas discovered a catalyst was the way bonuses were calculated. The metrics were different for each executive and were not in alignment with one another. As a result, one executive’s methods of achieving goals could interfere with another’s. “We changed their bonus program,” she says. “The anger was gone in 24 hours.”

Another situation she’s encountered: “Sometimes there’s one person who has been identified in need of anger management training. But when I probe, I find a person whose job is structured in an impossible way, or a conscientious employee who is being made a scapegoat by the group. … I find 97 percent of the conflicts aren’t due to an [angry] person or personality. Something is shaping behavior in a negative way.”

Most workplace anger, Maravelas says, is an employee’s response to perceived unfair treatment or lack of acknowledgement for efforts and sacrifices. When they receive expressions of gratitude, “most people relax into a receptive place where they can absorb positive appreciation.” A sincere compliment can be as rewarding as a tangible gift; a nice card or a catered lunch can go a long way toward smoothing ruffled feathers.