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Build Your Career Office Life

Anger Management: Irate Employees More Likely to Behave Badly

Anger Management: Irate Employees More Likely to Behave Badly
Credit: Imtmphoto/Shutterstock

Have an employee who flies off the handle at the slightest  provocation? You might want to keep a close eye on that person: New research suggests that angry employees have a tendency to act out in unethical ways at work.

Even if their anger doesn't stem from job-related issues, employees who are angry are more likely than their happier peers to exhibit bad behavior in the workplace, according to a study recently published in the Journal of Business Ethics. This can range from something minor, such as being late, to something more serious, such as theft.

Since unethical conduct costs businesses billions of dollars a year, it is critical employers understand how emotions influence on-the-job behavior, said Daphna Motro, the study's lead author and a doctoral student at the University of Arizona.

"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," Motro said in a statement. "We found that anger was associated with more impulsive processing, which led to deviant behavior, since deviant behavior is often impulsive and not very carefully planned out."

While anger causes employees to act poorly, those who feel guilty are far less likely to act unethically. Motro said since guilt is associated with more careful, deliberate processing, it leads to less deviance. [See Related Story: Want to Ward Off an Unethical Boss? Try Religion] 

Researchers came to their conclusions after conducting two studies in which participants were asked to write about a time they felt very angry or very guilty.

"Research has shown that writing about that time, remembering that time, actually brings those feelings back up to the present," Motro said.

A third group served as the control group and was asked to write about something that didn't involve emotions.

In the first study, after finishing their writing, participants completed a series of simple math problems and were told to award themselves a quarter for each correct answer. Those who wrote about a time they were angry awarded themselves significantly more undeserved quarters than the neutral group. Those who wrote about a time they felt guilty awarded themselves far fewer undeserved quarters than the control group.

In the second study, participants played a computerized card game. Players started the game with $100 on the screen and were told to report each time a joker card appeared. For each joker reported, the player would lose $4.

The researchers found that the angry participants cheated more by not reporting jokers, while guilty individuals were more truthful in their reporting.

Motro said one of the most important findings was that emotions can affect performance even when the feelings are in no way related to the task at hand.

"We show that 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," Motro said.

It is critical for employers to understand that there is much more to lose than just money from unethical behavior, according to Motro.

"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.

The study was co-authored by Lisa Ordóñez, vice dean of the University of Arizona's Eller College of Management; David Welsh, an assistant professor at Arizona State University; and Andrea Pittarello, an assistant professor at the University of Groningen, in the Netherlands.

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based freelance writer who has nearly 15 years experience in the media business. A graduate of Indiana University, he spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including, local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Following his years at the newspaper Chad worked in public relations, helping promote small businesses throughout the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.