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Curbing anger and aggression

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Recent research has uncovered a variety of practices that individuals can apply either to curb their own anger or to prevent aggression in someone else. Anger arises when individuals feel their goals are obstructed, but not prevented altogether. This anger can translate into aggression if individuals also feel excluded and rejected--as well as superior and conceited (Sakellaropoulo Baldwin, 2006).

Supervisory practices in response to aggression

Incidental words: References to themselves

Step 1. To curb anger, supervisors should ask individuals questions in which the answers are likely to use the term "I". They could, for example, ask, "How would you have acted if you had been the customer?" or "What are some of the feelings that you experienced?" They should avoid questions in which the answers are likely to use the term "you", such as "How should I have acted in this situation?"

Individuals are typically less likely to feel anger and hostility after they read statements that include the term "I". To illustrate, whenever errors, problems, obstacles, or shortfalls arise, some employees immediately assume a sense of responsibility. That is, they ascribe these difficulties to their own incompetence or negligence. As a consequence, they usually feel a sense of shame or guilt in response to these problems. In contrast, other employees do not assume a sense of responsibility whenever errors, problems, obstacles, or shortfalls arise. Instead, they ascribe these difficulties to the incompetence or negligence of other individuals, provoking anger. After individuals read statements that include the term "I"--or even reflect upon their own strengths, limitations, and behaviors--they tend to assume responsibility when problems arise, evoking guilt not anger (Neumann, 2000).

Incidental words: References to other individuals

Step 2. Sometimes, individuals act harshly, angrily, and inappropriately at work. In these instances, supervisors should, if possible, allude to a relative, friend, or celebrity these individuals like. In particular, individuals should be encouraged to reflect upon the desirable qualities of this person.

For example, supervisors could express statements like "I understand your argument. Your partner seems very insightful--how would she want you to behave?", "Can you write a document to summarize your recommendations? You can write this document with your friend John", or "I understand. You remind me of that movie star you like". References to the future, not to the immediate context, also curb anger.

After individuals feel rejected, they often focus on other needs instead, convincing themselves that social networks are not important. As a consequence, they do not experience their usual urge to maintain solid relationships--an urge that would diminish their aggression. They will, therefore, often act aggressively and harshly. However, after these individuals reflect upon their favorite relative, friend, or celebrity, the perceived importance of social networks escalates and aggression thus dissipates (Twenge, Zhang, Catanese, Dolan-Pascoe, Lyche, Baumeister, 2007).

Step 3. If someone is angry, supervisors could also ask this person to consider their aspirations and hopes for the future, with questions like "What do you hope will happen next year?" Finally, they might ask the person to reflect upon why this event unfolded& they might ask "Why do you think Jack did that?"

When people adopt the perpective of someone else, reflect on the distant future, or consider why some event unfolded, their attention is shifted to abstract concepts rather than specific details (see Construal level theory). If individuals direct their attention to these intangible, abstract concepts, the intensity of their emotions dissipates (Kross, Ayduk, & Mischel, 2005). Their anger subsides.

Supervisory practices that prevent aggression

Connection without conceit

Step 1.Some employees tend to act aggressively--expressing hostile comments, slamming doors, and so forth. To reduce this level of aggression, supervisors should highlight their delight with how the workgroup seems very cohesive, with members demonstrating similar values, principles, and qualities. Second, in private, supervisors should highlight the extent to which this person is valued and liked by members of their group. They could, for instance, assert "I think the team really like and value you, because you seem to advocate their needs. You've become an integral member of this group". Third, they should refrain from emphasizing the degree to which these individuals are respected or perceived as competent.

When employees feel threatened--perhaps criticized or mocked--they obviously are more inclined to become aggressive. However, the employees who perceive themselves as more attractive, competent, or effective than most other individuals are especially inclined to act aggressively, particularly if they also feel somewhat excluded from their workgroup (Kirkpatrick, Waugh, Valencia, Webster, 2002 Webster Kirkpatrick, 2006). That is, throughout our evolutionary history, when individuals felt superior to anyone else--perhaps more attractive or skilled--they recognized they were likely to prevail in any competition. Hence, humans have learnt to become more aggressive rather than submissive whenever they experienced feelings of superiority.

In contrast, when individuals feel very included, rather than excluded, from their social group, they recognized that aggression is inappropriate. Such aggressive behavior would merely disrupt the support they would receive from the group. When employees feel included, therefore, their aggression diminishes (Kirkpatrick, Waugh, Valencia, Webster, 2002 Webster Kirkpatrick, 2006).


Step 2. Aggression sometimes arises when individuals feel a sense of threat or vulnerability (McGregor, Lieberman, Greenberg, Solomon, Arndt, Simon, Pyszczynski, 2006)--a feeling that is offset when they conceptualize their life as meaningful. Therefore, to curb aggression in employees, supervisors could highlight the significance of their work activities. They could, for example, assert "We will need to solve this issue. Your work is very important for the development of future technologies, which could help many people. So, we will need to consider these issues carefully".

Performance appraisal: Conceited employees

Step 3. To curb aggression, and instead to promote sympathy and support, the most effective tactics that managers can utilize depend on the personality of employees. For example, some employees seem conceited, often highlighting their qualities, despite limitations in their skills or contribution. Some of these individuals seem narcissistic--they feel they should be entitled to special treatment and benefits as well as seem defensive.

To ensure conceited, narcissistic employees do not act aggressively, supervisors first need to concede their own faults to these individuals. They could state, "I'm currently trying to work on my personality, in an attempt to overcome my tendency to overreact to criticism". In addition, they could question their own beliefs, such as "I have always assumed that my qualifications are important, but sometimes I question that assumption". This behavior increases the likelihood that other employees will also accept their limitations or challenge their assumptions--both of which reduce the magnitude of their biased beliefs.

Some individuals, for example, perceive themselves as very competent, even though managers or colleagues feel otherwise. These individuals tend to focus their memory only on their achievements, not their limitations. Their perception of themselves, therefore, is often inaccurate. They often receive feedback or information that contradicts this biased perception. To counteract this feedback, they often act aggressively and defensively, blaming other individuals instead (Perez, Vohs, Joiner Jr., 2005).

Step 4. Supervisors should also attempt to highlight similarities between themselves and these individuals, at least occasionally. They could attempt to uncover trivial details about this person--their favorite football team, middle name, birthplace, and so forth-- perhaps through conversing with the individual or scrutinizing public records. They should then highlight any similarities they discover& for example, they could causally state "I saw the Magpies on Saturday" if they discover they support the same football team. These similarities should be expressed a few hours or days before managers need to confront these employees.

Because these individuals focus so vigorously on their strengths, they also perceive anything that is related to themselves--for example, anyone else with similar attitudes, background, or features--as superior as well. They will, therefore, forgive anyone who is similar to themselves, such as a person who shares the same initials (Konrath, Bushman, Campbell, 2006). Individuals who are not narcissistic do not demonstrate these tendencies.

Physical activities


Step 1. To alleviate anger, employees should be encouraged to relax all their muscles and unclench their teeth and hands. Anger tends to diminish after individuals relax all their muscles and unclench their teeth and hands (Duclos Laird, 2001). In particular, individuals unconsciously evaluate their own state of mind from their facial expressions and posture. If they exhibit a posture that usually coincides with happiness, they assume they indeed feel content, and this assumption improves their mood.


Duclos, S. E., Laird, J. D. (2001). The deliberate control of emotional experience through control of expressions. Cognition and Emotion, 15, 27-56.

Kirkpatrick, L. A., Waugh, C. E., Valencia, A., Webster, G. D. (2002). The functional domain specificity of self-esteem and the differential prediction of aggression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 756-767.

Konrath, S., Bushman, B. J., Campbell, W. K. (2006). Attenuating the link between threatened egotism and aggression. Psychological Science, 17, 995-1001.

Kross, E., Ayduk, O., & Mischel, W. (2005). When asking "why" does not hurt: Distinguishing rumination from reflective processing of negative emotions. Psychological Science, 16, 709-715.

McGregor, H. A., Lieberman, J., Greenberg, J,. Solomon, S., Arndt, J., Simon, L., Pyszczynski, T. (2006). Terror management and aggression: Evidence that mortality salience motivates aggression against worldview-threatening others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 590-605.

Neumann, R. (2000). The causal influences of attributions on emotions: A procedural priming approach. Psychological Science, 11, 179-182.

Perez, M., Vohs, K. D., Joiner Jr., T. E. (2005). Discrepancies between self- and other-esteem as correlates of aggression. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 24, 607-620.

Twenge, J. M., Zhang, L., Catanese, K. R., Dolan-Pascoe, B., Lyche, L. F., Baumeister, R. F. (2007). Replenishing connectedness: Reminders of social activity reduce aggression after social exclusion. British Journal of Social Psychology, 46, 205-224.

Webster, G.D., Kirkpatrick, L. A. (2006). Behavioral and self-reported aggression as a function of domain-specific self-esteem. Aggressive Behavior, 32, 17-27.

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Last Update: 4/28/2016