Sometimes anger is just what you need to drive you to action. Outrage over mistreatment, corruption, or red tape has spurred many a successful reform campaign. But according to research, we all need to be at least a little cautious of indignation (righteous or otherwise). A new study shows angry people aren't just more prone to act, they're also more prone to act unethically.
More angry = more impulsive
To come to this conclusion, a team from the University of Arizona asked student guinea pigs to either write about a time they were extremely angry, extremely guilty, or simply to describe a classroom as a control before having them participate in a series of games designed to lure them to cut ethical corners.
For instance, in one such game, participants were told to reward themselves, without supervision, with quarters for each successfully completed math puzzle. In another simulated card game, volunteers were told to self-report when a joker appeared so that they could be docked a small amount of money from their winnings.
These scenarios offered obvious opportunities to cheat, but the students didn't all avail themselves of their opportunities at the same rate. Those who participated in the games while angry were the most likely to sneak themselves a little bit extra. Why?
"We found that anger was associated with more impulsive processing, which led to deviant behavior, since deviant behavior is often impulsive and not very carefully planned out," Daphna Motro, a doctoral student in management and organizations who participated in the research, explained.
You'd assume that those angry at their job, company or co-workers might be more inclined to punch back in unethical ways, but the research actually demonstrated that any type of anger - even rage that has its roots in something totally non-work related - can push people to behave in problematic ways.
What's the practical takeaway? For individuals, the message is probably to think carefully before acting when you're emotions are running hot. That ethically questionable action might seem justifiable when you're are fired up with anger, but you're likely to think about it differently once you've cooled down.
But the study also has important lessons for managers, according to the researchers. Keeping a tab on your employees' emotions is essential for minimizing the risk of ethical lapses. Make sure you remove those who are in the grips of anger, whatever its cause, from delicate situations.
"Pay attention. An employee might be angry, and they might not be angry at you or anything that you've done specifically, but just pay careful attention," Motro advises. "Maybe tell them to take a short break and wait for them to cool down."
And not just so you can avoid your enraged employing getting your company into trouble. Even minor ethical infractions weigh down your company culture and can have a heavy impact on performance. "If you're an employee and you're working in an environment that's uncomfortable or unethical, it leads to less work engagement, less job satisfaction and more turnover," Motro cautions.
Looking for more research-validated tips to help you nudge your team to behave more ethically? Science has a few.