How come angry employees are bad for business?
Dr. John Schinnerer
Anger management specialist
It seems reasonable to assume that angry employees are bad for business. But why? A new study shows that angry workers tend to behave unethically more often. And guilty workers tend to act more ethically. So if you are hiring new employees, you may want to factor in how much anger they feel versus how guilty they feel.
A November 2016 study from the University of Arizona in the Journal of Business Ethics demonstrates just how critical it is for supervisors to pay attention to how employees feel — especially when that feeling is anger.
Angry workers are more likely to engage in unethical behavior at work, even if the cause of that anger has nothing to do with work. And earlier research has shown that unethical behaviors in the workplace are a huge drain on the bottom line in terms of bad public relations, potential lawsuits, shrinkage and theft, tardiness, safety violations, industrial accidents and corporate espionage.
On the other hand, when employees feel guilty, they are much less likely to act in unethical ways than those in a more neutral emotional state. So their guilt motivates them to stay within ethical guard rails, so to speak.
Lead author Daphna Motro, a doctoral student in management and organizations in the UA’s Eller College of Management stated, “At every level of an organization, every employee is experiencing emotion, so it’s universal, and emotions are really powerful — they can overtake you and make you do things you never thought you were capable of doing.”
Until recently, researchers have looked at ‘negative emotions’ as being quite similar. Yet not all negative emotions are created equal. While anger and guilt are both negative emotions, they have very different effects on our behaviors, our thoughts and our perceptions.
The reason for these differences, Motro stated, is how the two emotions differently impact thinking.
“We found that anger was associated with more impulsivity, which led to deviant behavior, since deviant behavior is often impulsive and not very carefully planned out,” Motro reported. “Guilt, on the other hand, is associated with more careful, deliberate processing — trying to think about what you’ve done wrong, how to fix it — and so it leads to less deviance.”
A critical finding, Motro said, is that emotions can impact performance even when the emotions are in no way related to the work at hand.
“Anger can affect deviance in a completely different context, so if someone experiences anger and then they complete another task that is unassociated with the anger, there’s a spillover effect,” she stated.
The consequences of unethical behavior at work are far more than merely financial, Motro shared. There is a ripple effect to unethical behaviors in which the behaviors ripple outward and impact coworkers in a negative way.
“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,” she said.
While guilty study participants behaved the most ethically, employers don’t want to use that as a reason to make their employees feel guilty, Motro cautioned.
“Too much guilt can be associated with shame, which is not a pleasant or positive emotional state,” Motto said.
Rather, supervisors should learn to be aware of their employees’ emotions and act accordingly.
“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 said. “Maybe tell them to take a short break and wait for them to cool down.” Or ask them how they are doing to engage them in conversation. In persistent cases, it is suggested that you refer them to an online anger management class.
1Daphna Motro, Lisa D. Ordóñez, Andrea Pittarello, David T. Welsh. Investigating the Effects of Anger and Guilt on Unethical Behavior: A Dual-Process Approach. Journal of Business Ethics, 2016; DOI: 10.1007/s10551-016-3337-x