It unfortunately happens. One coworker slugs another, profanity gets thrown around, or a team member sabotages a project to get even with somebody else. It's all a sign that somebody has some serious anger issues to iron out.

Right?

Not necessarily so, according to psychologists.

In a story for National Public Radio, Nell Greenfieldboyce reveals that people who show anger to others aren't always mad at all. Sometimes, they're actually depressed.

The idea actually has been circulated in mental health circles for years. Others often miss anger as a symptom of depression, though, because although anger is listed as a core depression symptom for kids and adolescents, it's still not listed that way for adults. And according to some researchers, that split is hogwash, since your age doesn't necessarily magically stop you from feeling one way or another. And Dr. Maurizio Fava, psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor at Harvard Medical School, says about a third of his depressed patients said they'd get scream, yell, slam doors or otherwise lose their tempers.

Why care?

As Greenfieldboyce's article emphasizes, the recognition of anger as a depression symptom is hugely important because of the way it influences diagnoses and treatments people receive. But it also matters for leaders, too, because as a boss or other professional, you will be working with these individuals much of the day. You thus are on the front lines of their lives and can be one of the first to start recognizing that something is wrong. And when they become upset, it's up to you to set aside initial presumptions, look beyond their hot emotions and consider what's potentially beneath the surface. It might very well be that, instead of anger management training, they need a very different kind of emotional support from your HR counselors or independent therapists.

The interference of bias

While there's still a long way to go when it comes to totally dismantling the depression stigma, many times, when we know someone is depressed, we try hard to encourage them and offer help. We stress that it isn't their fault and, if it makes sense, try to make some accommodations.

But the story usually changes when we deal with an angry person. Instead of seeing them as needing a hand, we see them as the problem. It is very much their fault. They have lost control, and nice people don't do that. We even might consider them to be a liability and worry about protecting the rest of our workers. We have no choice, we think, but to discipline them or, worse, fire them.

In truth, stories of disgruntled workers inflicting heartbreaking violence are common, and some of those cases aren't related to depression at all. But the reality that there's a link between depression and anger begs the question as to whether a big key to workplace safety and preventing at least some future tragedies is being able to spot depression earlier, long before an individual no longer can cope.

But how can you really tell the difference?

There's unfortunately no foolproof test to mark someone as depressed or angry, and both emotions aren't necessarily "bad"--all emotions try to convey some kind of message to you. But the point psychologists appear to try to be making here is that people with real depression often are just as unkind to others as they are to themselves. We might have gotten the wrong idea--that the rage turns only inward--simply because those who suffer can be so good at hiding their unhappiness for fear of seeming weak. If they're trying to do this, then their outbursts may seem out of place when you look at their typical behavior. They might feel genuinely guilty and readily apologize.

People who suffer from anger management issues can have histories similar to those with depression, and their irritation and rage can be triggered by the same kind of events. But they usually struggle more with seeing others, not themselves, as incompetent, inconsiderate or in the way. And if a circumstance, system or process seems illogical or immoral to them, they can become very dedicated protestors. Their outbursts might seem more habitual, and they might not express remorse after the fact because they feel justified.

Because it's not always clear how much internal anguish a person is actually hiding, and because the stakes are so high for both the individual and your company, play it safe and get a licensed counselor involved as soon as you suspect a problem. Let them offer the final diagnosis. But along the way, do your best to be reasonably available and honest with the person in need. Invest time and ask compassionate questions without giving up. The person who is struggling has to trust you before they'll confide in you, and trust happens with connection. 

And if the person struggling is you? The strongest thing you ever can do is model self-advocacy and admit you need to talk.

Published on: Feb 7, 2019
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