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Go Ahead, Get Angry at Work

New research contradicts warm and fuzzy advice on always staying positive and gives bosses permission to get angry once in awhile.
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Have we taken our quest to eliminate jerks in the workplace too far?

Article after article has argued that aggressive employees are toxic to your company, while another set of advice underlines the incredible power of positivity. Read all of these and you just might come out thinking that being a good boss means an unbroken sunny disposition and perpetual good cheer.

But while true jerks are indeed a productivity and culture killer and entrepreneurship does require a healthy dose of optimism in the face of contradictory evidence, science suggests running a business well doesn't mean always, always holding your temper. Anger, researchers recently showed, has its place at the office.

It Can Be Good to Feel Bad

In a series of studies recently published in Human Relations and highlighted by Sonali Kholi on Quartz, various researchers came to a pretty straightforward conclusion--sometimes, when it comes to work outcomes, it can be good to (occasionally) feel bad.

One study, for instance, looked at how colleagues rated their teammates' performance following both positive and negative interactions with a less than pleased boss. While being nice more often elicited a positive outcome (it did so 94 percent of the time), getting angry wasn't even close to always a bad idea--70 percent of the time a ticked off leader resulted in good things happening.

And getting angry, it seems, isn't just sometimes not bad, it can also be a positive good. As Kholi points out other studies discussed show that, "when a manager sets a 'negative affective tone'--basically, when they convey dissatisfaction--employees in both individual and team settings tended to perform better." Why? "The manager's negative tone encouraged workers not to settle for less, and to delve into deeper problems."

But Not Always

Of course, not all anger is constructive and not all employees are good at handling a ticked off boss. Another study found that employees that were high in agreeableness (nice and easy to get along with) deal better with angry episodes from their bosses than more temperamental co-workers, for instance.

This research then is far from license to be a jerk--no one is suggesting that downright meanness or personal attacks are ever useful--nor is it a blanket permission to let fly with your anger at any and all times. Instead, the gist seems to be that we have taken our fear of negative emotion at work too far. Sure, kindness and positivity often pay but honestly expressed, professionally motivated anger--used with an awareness of the audience's personality and likely reaction--has its uses too.

How often do you get angry at work?

Last updated: Aug 29, 2014

JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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