Observing anger: Does it influence one’s ability to work?

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Take a minute and recall a time when you saw a customer being cruel towards one of your colleagues.  It doesn’t take long to recall that moment does it?  Did you ever think about how that observation affected your ability to work?  Current research has looked at how observing other people’s anger affects one’s own ability to complete complex and creative problems.  Specifically Dr. Ella Miron-Spektor and her team completed a study where they analyzed people’s ability to do complex problems that involved routine actions verses their ability to complete more creative problem solving that did not involve a routine solution.  So, as an employee observing someone else’s anger, do you think you would be able to complete a new task or an old task that was familiar to you?

Miron-Spektor and her team decided to do this study because “most research on anger examined the effect of experienced anger (what happens to me when I feel angry). In this research we wanted to understand the effects of observing others’ anger (what happens to me when I observe anger expressions of others).”  According to Miron-Spektor and her research team, displays of anger can have both positive and negative effects on people.  For example, they found that those who are working on redundant tasks and who observe anger are more likely to work harder and actually increase their work effort, whereas those working to solve more creative problems were negatively affected by observing anger.  In fact, those creative problems were unlikely to be completed at all when the individual observed anger. 

Miron-Spektor and her team were not only interested in people observing anger, but they were also interested in learning the influence of sarcasm on people’s work abilities.  Now, take a minute and think back to when you were at work and you overheard a customer’s sarcastic remark to one of your colleagues.  Perhaps the customer said ” wow, what great service this is” or something similar.  How do you think that influenced your ability to work?  Do you see this type of anger to be more positive or negative?  In Miron-Spektor’s study, they found that people view sarcasm as a more positive way to express anger.  Thus, observing sarcasm actually has been shown to improve one’s ability to solve creative problems. 

Miron-Spektor believes that her “research shows that the effects of anger are much broader than originally thought. People who merely hear someone displaying anger without being the actual target are shown by our analyses to be influenced by the anger displays.”  Miron-Spektor’s research has shown that people who observe anger are more likely to improve on their work when their work is a routine task versus a creative task.  Miron-Spektor also says “the popular conception is limited because anger seems to get people going only in simple, well-known, and uncreative routes.  However, with some irony and humor, an anger-evoking situation can improve performance even if the problem at hand is complex.”

Now, think about a time when you were a customer and you were angry with the store workers, did you yell at them?  If so, the next time you are an angry customer remember that the way you express your anger does in fact influence the employees work ability.  Perhaps you will decide not to yell at or insult someone and instead bring some humor into the conversation.    

By Rebecca Arrowood
Rebecca is a senior Psychology major and Human Development minor at the University of Wisconsin- Green Bay.  She plans on attending graduate school to earn a Masters in Counseling Psychology next fall.

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