Saturday, July 19, 2008

Rage in the workplace

I just posted a new discussion on the leadership forum site. I will list it below, and if you want to join in the discussion go to:

William Sweetland from Ragan Communications wrote a blog post on rage in the workplace. It came to my attention because he mentioned research from the leadership pulse (and ok, he said very nice things about our work).

He interviewed me Friday, and it was a real pleasure to find out that someone else has been observing the same kind of data points we're seeing in the research and coming to the same conclusions.

I thought you'd enjoy his blog post, and I'd be interested to hear what you all think. It's below:

Blog post by William Sweetland of
Ragan Communications
uly, 2008

Recently two online stories, one in the New York Times and one in Yahoo News, dealt with Anger in the Workplace. What are its causes? How common is it? What can we do about it?

The Times article, partly tongue in cheek, assigns blame to petty rudeness and thoughtlessness, mostly such things as food theft, dishes left in the company kitchen sink, and cell-phone abuse by the idiot in the next cubicle. The Yahoo News article, a straightforward, serious examination of the problem, concludes that the rising price of gas and the falling economy are to blame.

What baloney. When nearly half of the workers in America report yelling and verbal abuse on the job, and a quarter say they've been reduced to tears by such abuse, the cause is NOT four-dollar-a-gallon gas. Nor is it that my retirement package is worth 18% less today than it was four months ago. And it certainly isn't the rumors I've heard that my entire department is going to be outsourced to Nepal within the next three months.

No, as worrisome as these concerns are, they don't come close to the heart of the matter, the real reason why people yell and scream at others at work. The real reason is on top of your desk right now.

It's your damned workload. The workload that's so big, you don't know where to start. So big, you don't know how to attack it, how to assign priority to the most important stuff, what to work on, who to blame, where to go for help, why it happened, or how to solve it.

That is the reason people snap and start yelling at subordinates. They're at the end of their ropes. They can stand the hour-and-a-half commutes in from Schaumburg, the waste of gas, the trip that costs $15 or $20 in gas instead of the $4 it should cost. The terrible state of the economy is something they know they can't do anything about.

But those piles of work on their desks: That they feel personally responsible for. And those piles are growing like a malignant cancer. And this knowledge is driving them crazy, the most senior management as well as the line supervisors in the Podunk, PA factory.

Don't believe me? A very smart professor at the University of Michigan, Dr. Theresa Welbourne, has made a deep, wide-ranging study of anger, disillusionment, disgust, and disengagement inside the American corporation, and here is her conclusion: The problem of undone work piling up on everybody's desks is so big that it's the No. 1 cause of disengagement. Not only for management, but for everyone in the corporation.

We don't want to admit the overwhelming pressure of this problem, because we think we're at fault. Deep down, we think it's also the fault of the executives in the C-suite. The systems they created (or didn't create) are responsible. Or it's the people who work under us. They just don't care as deeply about their work as we do. In our desperation we make bogeymen out of innocent people. And we hate ourselves for doing that, because we know we’re being unfair.

So the next time The Wall Street Journal or the Christian Science Monitor tells you that the real cause of workplace rage lies outside of work, write them a note and set them straight.
It's the work that isn't getting done, no matter how hard we work, no matter what we try, that brings on these attacks of rage. It isn't the price of gas or the declining value of our 40l-k's. To blame the morning commute or the fact that we can no longer afford our annual vacation in Bermuda is ridiculous.

Getting our job done well is FAR more important than any of these secondary annoyances.


Anonymous said...


Thanks for posting this piece on rage and I think the undone work is creating all kinds of emotions in many of us. These emotions can range from resignation to anger and frustration.

I do believe we have some control or influence over rage and that it is not just the sheer volume of work that produces it. It may be a contributing factor for sure but we are not helpless pawns to overwork.

Thanks for getting me thinking about the engaged rage!


Waykm said...

I am inclined to look upon rage as a learning disability, considering its chronic presence in the workplace as established by you. This implies personnel use it as a means to stay within their comfort zones, i.e., live and solve problems with the energy they can muster. It could be another way of saying ‘the enemy is out there’ and I am not at fault. However, there is also the possibility that rage is a form of disaffection. Disaffections lock up mental energy that would otherwise have been available to overcome learning disabilities for stretching the comfort zone. Any way one looks at rage, it emerges that it wastes precious mental energy.

It is possible that the solution requires more than providing a means for raising productivity. Jim Collins in his acclaimed research work ‘Good to Great’ concludes that sustained and focused endeavor to excel (a clearly conceived direction for being the best sustained by a practical measure to drive performance) accompanied with shared passion delivers results. The great companies let managing change and motivating people emerge from the solution. However, only a minor fraction of the companies could manage this simple path. What can be done to raise this fraction? Does the solution have to be imposed or it can emerge as a truth among the members of the organization? What is common to direction and passion, best practices and the emergence of truth? The answers to these questions lie at the frontier of thinking about knowledge.

That the knowledge frontier has yet to be opened is clear from the place Knowledge Management occupied for so many years without delivering results. Peter Senge’s work on system’s thinking, presented in his ‘The Fifth Discipline’, provides an insight into the basic flaw of Knowledge Management: it focuses on the mistakes and the Knowing-Doing Gap. These divert attention from the assumptions, mental sets and behavior patterns of the doer. The doer can begin to engage with long term solutions only when she/he comes to terms with her/his own contribution to the problem.

The frontier is a fascinating area of possibilities and study. There is not much research since leading teams to success is still looked upon as an art. It must be a rather esoteric art, for teams that raise the potential of their members are a very rare phenomenon. There is, however, a general consensus that free flow of knowledge is central to success. It is difficult to comment on free flow with authority since evidence is thin.

Raj Kumar

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