How to Deal

An angry co-worker gets in the way of another employee's contentment

Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, September 2, 2010; 9:18 AM

I have to interact with a guy at work who has anger issues. He's good at what he does and is, therefore, valuable to the company. Despite his outbursts he's not going anywhere. Much of the year I have minimal interaction with him, but for about a month a year he and I work diligently together. Although I like the task of what we do together, his attitude and presence have made me start to dread that time of year and made me think I should find a way out of that work assignment. Speaking with the higher ups about this issue hasn't gotten me very far, other than to receive a double message of "work it out with him" but "we can't afford to lose him." Help!

You may be able to rise above your situation by focusing on your positive feelings about the work and deflecting the negative influence of your angry colleague.

Focus on your enjoyment of the project to which you and he are assigned. Catalog the aspects of your work that make you look forward to the month and try to find ways to enhance those opportunities. Suppose you and your coworker collaborate on annual updates to the company website. If you most enjoy the creative side of the project, then you might consider taking charge of the site design ask asking your colleague to handle technical issues. Since your colleague does have a tendency to react belligerently, you should ask your supervisor to establish the division of labor. This way, you will maximize the benefit of the project to you.

Even as you seek to enhance what you like about the one-month assignment, you should become self-aware about your role in the conflict with your coworker. Seek to establish strong interpersonal boundaries and patterns of behavior that will tend to deflect his angry outbursts. Let's assume, for example, that your colleague becomes angered by your failure to immediately respond to an email. He shows up at your office door yelling about how disrespectful you have been. Now you have a choice. You could yell back about how unreasonable it is for him to expect an immediate response from you when you are so busy. It might feel good to get your own frustrations off your chest, but you will only escalate the situation and cause your coworker to feel justified in his out-of-proportion response to your "offense."

Someone who acts angrily is trying to provoke an angry response, which will allow them to have a fight, release some of their stress and tension, and experience emotional relief. A fight also draws attention away from the person's own inadequacies and onto something external. Do you really want to become a facilitator of this process?

Better that you diffuse your colleague's anger by responding in a neutral and constructive way. First, in a calm and deliberate tone of voice, acknowledge that your colleague is frustrated because he expected a response to his email sooner. Next, maintaining that same calmness, affirm your desire to work with him productively. Then, ask your colleague to describe the information in his message that requires your immediate attention. Your objective should be to find a way to look beyond his inflammatory response to the underlying message, which might very well lead to a legitimate job-related concern. If your colleague reacts with an ad hominem attack, which is typical if you are dealing with someone who has anger management problems, fall back to again affirming your desire to work together productively. Follow these steps until your colleague's anger has subsided.

If your colleague does not relent, then you should politely terminate the conversation. Simply tell him that you are not available to talk at the moment, but that you will gladly discuss his concerns at some more auspicious future time. It could be in an hour, tomorrow morning, or even next week. In general, you should limit interactions with your mercurial colleague to those absolutely necessary to complete your work together.

Of course it is distressing to be in a position to tolerate verbal abuse from anyone. And it might gall you not to express your own understandable anger in return. But remember that your refusal to engage your colleague in an angry exchange does not make you weak or vulnerable. Maintaining control over your emotional reactions places you in a position of power.

According to Dr. Bradley Brenner, a psychologist practicing in Washington, DC, "Anger at work is commonly related to fears of being exposed as incompetent or reactions to an injustice." However, there could also be a host of personal reasons why a colleague is angry. I once knew a person who was struggling with a workplace dynamic very similar to yours. He had a colleague who would launch into a public tirade over the minutest logistical snag. My friend took some of this personally, wondering what he could do to avoid setting off his colleague. Then he found out that his colleague's wife was dying and that his colleague was himself besieged by serious health issues. Suddenly, everything was in perspective and my friend was able to clearly see that the anger was not about him. This allowed him to much more easily disengage from his colleague's behavior and find more enjoyment in his work.

I am not suggesting that you try to decipher what, exactly, is causing your colleague to struggle with anger. You might never know the reasons for his behavior, and it is not productive or appropriate for you to psychoanalyze him. Just recognize that it has nothing at all to do with you. Rather than engaging him on his terms, you should instead direct your energy to finding joy in your work while at the same time protecting yourself from unnecessary stress.

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