Get the FREE e-Book, The Eight Tools of Anger Control from Dr Tony Fiore

How to deal with difficult people coping with the aggressive driver when he is a loved one

45 year old John terrorized his family when they were his passengers. He would yell at them if they complained about his driving.

He would ignore them when they showed signs of discomfort and even seemed to enjoy scaring his passengers with his maneuvers such as tailgating, weaving in and out of traffic, passing other cars dangerously, and pulling too far into crosswalks so pedestrians are unable to safely cross the street.

John would show aggression in other ways too — like insisting on choosing the radio station, controlling the volume of the radio, and controlling the temperature, the fan setting and where the vents are aimed while driving. He refused to stop for restroom breaks on long trips.

John was anything but “passenger-friendly” yet he did not see himself as the problem. Statistics show that while 70% of drivers complain about the aggressiveness of others, only 30% admit to their own aggressiveness. John saw other drivers as “stupid, ” his family/passengers as “whiney,” and the roadway as his personal terrain. Unfortunately, we all pay the price for this kind of distorted thinking.

High cost of aggressive driving

According to recent statistics, aggressive driving is at the core of numerous fatalities, injuries and dollar costs associated with accidents. More specifically, it is linked to:

  • Fatalities (425,000 per decade)
  • Injuries (35 million per decade)
  • Dollars (250 billion per year)

The cost to the emotional well-being of family members is also very high. Often, family members develop a fear of driving with the aggressive driver. While they may not talk about it, passengers may lose esteem, respect and affection toward the driver.

Younger passengers may also be affected later in life by being exposed to this kind of driving behavior. By watching and then modeling their aggressive-driver parent, the child may develop similar attitudes and driving behaviors when he or she becomes a driver.

Driving under the influence

At its root, aggressive driving is caused by poor ability to handle angry feelings. The aggressive driver is, in effect, driving under the influence of impaired emotions. Studies list many reasons why driving arouses anger in aggressive drivers. Some of the most common are:

  1. Territoriality. The car is a symbol associated with individual freedom and self-esteem. Our car is our castle and the space around it is our territory. When other drivers invade our space the aggressive driver responds with hostility to protect his “castle.”
  2. Restriction. In congested traffic, you are prevented from going forward. This can lead to frustration, anxiety and an intense desire to escape the restriction.
  3. Multitasking. We become irritated at others when we see them driving poorly while talking on the cell phone, eating, or performing personal grooming.
  4. Poor life planning. We don’t allow enough time to get to our destination on a consistent basis so we “press” to make up for the lost time and then become stressed and angry at other drivers who we see as frustrating our mad dash.

What can you do as a passenger?

While aggressive driving behavior ultimately must be changed by the driver himself, the following are some survival tips that may help until that occurs:

Refuse to passenger with such a person until he or she changes.

Share with driver how you feel when they drive aggressively. For example: I feel anxious about how fast we’re going (instead of “you are driving too fast”); I’m upset about the way you swore at that driver and I am fearful how it will affect our children who heard you; I feel afraid when you approach pedestrians too fast; I feel bullied by you when you won’t stop for a bathroom break.

Encourage person to look at their “driving philosophy” and to develop more empathy regarding how others (like the family) are being negatively impacted by his or her poor driving behavior. That is, help him see himself through the eyes of his family.

This honest feedback from loved ones can be a powerful tool to encourage the aggressive driver to become a better citizen of the roadways.

Anger in the workplace – key management strategies

Joe, a 15 year city employee with a good record began missing work, and showing irritability with supervisors and customers alike. He then started to shout at customers who frustrated him.

As complaints mounted, his supervisors “wrote him up” but did not try to discover the reasons for his drastic change of behavior. Finally, when mildly teased by a co-worker, Joe attacked and hit him. At this point, he was suspended and ordered to anger management classes.

Dealing with angry employees is not only challenging for managers, but extremely expensive in terms of wasted employee time, increased turnover rates, mistakes, and high levels of personal stress and illness. By contrast, proper handling can promote personal growth in the employee, reduce employee stress, and promote increased workplace harmony.

How prevalent is the problem of workplace anger?

In 1993 the national Safe Workplace Institute released a study showing that workplace violence costs $4.2 billion each year, estimating over 111,000 violent incidents.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 500,000 victims of violent crime in the workplace lose an estimated 1.8.million workdays each year.
This presents an astounding $55 million in lost wages for employees, not including days covered by sick and annual leave and a loss of productivity that has direct consequences for an employer’s bottom line.

Joe’s assault on his co-worker did not occur all at once. Anger storm clouds had been forming for quite some time. What signs should a supervisor or manager look for and how should it be dealt with? According to Workplace Violence, there are four levels of anger expression which need to be dealt with at the lowest level, to prevent escalation:

Four levels of workplace anger

  • Level 1 – Employee upset. Sensitive to criticism, and irritable. Displays “passive-aggressive” behaviors such as procrastination of work, expressing sarcasm, being late to meetings.
  • Level 2 – Behavioral symptoms escalate. Angry remarks are expressed. Employee is openly critical of others and the company. More emotional, less rational. Absenteeism and tardiness is common.
  • Level 3 – Escalating physical, emotional and psychological arousal. Raising voice, throwing things about, slam door, threats.
  • Level 4 – Assaultive behavior and or destruction of property.

Anger management training for supervisors and managers can help them as individuals and give them better skills to manage difficult employees, before the situation rises to a Level 4 crisis.

Key management strategies:

Strategy 1– Know your resources
Company resources include EAP (employee referral program), and HR (human resources). Community resources include psychologists, substance abuse programs, and anger management programs.

Strategy 2 – Assertive Communication
This means that you express your thoughts, feelings and opinions directly in an honest, open, straightforward and sincere manner. It also involves learning to actively listen to employees and being aware of non-verbal communication that goes beyond his or her words.

Strategy 3 – Set Limits
When you set limits with others in the workplace both parties know what they can expect from each other. When you clarify individual expectations, you avoid misunderstandings that can occur and thus avoid potential conflicts. For example, instead of asking support staff, “will you get this report to me as soon as possible?”, verbalize a specific time you need it.

Strategy 4 – Establish Consequences
In the real-world workplace, you may encounter conflicts with employees who are uncooperative or are unwilling to comply with the rules or policies of your company. As a manger, you may have to take an action that states to the employee the likely outcome of continuing problematic behavior.

Be sure to deliver consequences so they don’t sound like “threats,” but still get the message across.

Recognize stress before it turns into anger

After a stressful day as a computer programmer, Jim pulled into his driveway. The children’s toys were scattered on the walkway to the house.
He immediately began noticing slight tension in his muscles and apprehension in his stomach.

Entering his house, his wife ignored him while she talked with her sister on the telephone. His heart started beating a little faster.

Looking around, he noticed disarray; nothing was picked up, the house was a mess. Irritation and frustration started to settle in. Finally, as his feelings grew, he exploded and began yelling at his wife and children.

Stress may trigger anger

Stress is often the trigger that takes us from feeling peaceful to experiencing uncomfortable angry feelings in many common situations such as the one described above.

Stress is most easily defined as series of bodily responses to demands made upon us called stressors. These “demands” or stressors can be negative (such as coping with a driver who cuts in front of you on the freeway) or positive (such as keeping on a tour schedule while on vacation).

Stressors may external to you (like work pressure) or internal (like expectations you have of yourself or feeling guilty about something you did or want to do).

Whether the stressor is external or internal, scientists have discovered that the major systems of the body work together to provide one of the human organism’s most powerful and sophisticated defenses; the stress response which you may know better as “fight-or-flight”.

This response helps you to cope with stressors in your life. To do so, it activates and coordinates the brain, glands, hormones, immune system, heart, blood and lungs.

Avoid Jim’s destructive behavior toward his loved ones. Before your stress response turns into anger or aggression, use these strategies to get it under control:

Read your personal warning lights

Becoming aware of your stress response is the first step to managing it. This means listening to your body, being aware of your negative emotions, and observing your own behavior when under stress.

For instance, notice muscle tension, pounding heart, raising voice, irritation, dry mouth, or erratic movements.

What you see is what you get

For a potential stressor to affect us -stress us out – we have to first perceive it or experience it as a stressor.

Gaining a new perspective on the stressing situation can often drastically change the effect it has on us. Our stress response can indeed be a response (something we can control) instead of a knee-jerk reaction (which is automatic).

Examples: Cut off on the freeway? “It is not personal. That guy has a problem. I will stay calm.” Bullied by a co-worker? “If I react, he wins. Later, I will privately let him know how I feel about what he did. If that doesn’t work, I’ll discuss it with our manager.”

Stress-Guard your life

You can also make many life-style changes to reduce or minimize feeling stressed-out, even if you can’t change some of your actual stressors
For instance, manage your time better, establish priorities, protect yourself from toxic relationships, find a way to manage your money better, or consider changing your job or occupation.

Other stress-guards include those you have probably heard before, but maybe need to do more frequently such as:

  • Getting adequate rest.
  • Eating a healthy diet.
  • Avoiding excessive alcohol intake.
  • Living in a way consistent with your core personal values.
  • Developing social networks of friends and support.

Five skills to deal with workplace anger

Leroy was a superstar in the Real Estate business, producing three times the monthly business of his nearest coworker. He was a driven, highly competitive young man who saw his manager as getting in the way of even higher production.

Tension turned to irritability. Yelling and shouting followed. On the day he was fired, he shoved his manager in front of alarmed coworkers who reported his behavior to HR. Anger management classes were required, along with a one month interim, before reinstatement would be considered.
As this case example illustrates, workplace anger is costly to the employee, the company, and coworkers. Studies show that up to 42% of employee time is spent engaging in or trying to resolve conflict. This results in wasted employee time, mistakes, stress, lower morale, hampered performance, and reduced profits and or service.

Clearly, poorly handled anger, frustration and resentment sabotage business productivity. Was Leroy justified in his anger? What skills should he learn to prevent future episodes?

Skill 1 – Anger Management

Using anger management skills, Leroy can clearly learn to control his behavior and communicate needs in a socially acceptable manner without disruptions to work and morale. The issue here is not if he was justified in being angry; it is how to best deal with normal angry feelings. A key ingredient to managing anger is learning to change “self-talk”- that inner dialog that creates or intensifies angry feelings.

Skill 2 – Stress management

Leroy was clearly under a great deal of stress, much of which was self-imposed. Stress often triggers anger responses. Managing stress can help prevent anger outbursts, as well as reducing employee “burnout” and hampered performance. Effective stress-reduction strategies include learning breathing techniques, adjusting expectations, improving time-management, and finding a way to mentally adjust your mind-view and self-talk so that stressors loose their power to stress you out. Other effective stress-reduction techniques include watching your nutrition, getting proper sleep, and taking care of your body through exercise.

Skill 3 – Emotional Intelligence

Popularized by psychologist Daniel Goleman, much research shows that increasing “EQ” is correlated with emotional control and increased workplace effectiveness.

What is “EQ” exactly? According to Goleman, it is “the capacity for recognizing our own feelings and those of others, for motivating ourselves, and for managing emotions well in ourselves and in our relationships.”
Fortunately, skills to improve your emotional intelligence can be learned. The critical EQ skills ones are empathy and social awareness. Empathy is the ability to see the world from the viewpoint of the other person. Lack of empathy is at the root of much anger and conflict because inability to see things from other points of view causes communication problems and frustration. It also causes employees, co-workers and managers to sense a lack of caring or concern for their well-being which is de-motivating in the workplace.

Social awareness is the people-skill of being sensitive to how we are coming across to others in the workplace. Many people are referred to anger management programs because they are seen by others as hostile, insensitive, or perhaps even degrading toward others. Persons with high EQ are constantly monitoring their own behavior as well as feedback from others as to how they are being seen by others. They then are flexible enough to modify their approach to get a different result, if needed.

Skill 4 – Assertive Communication

Communication problems frequently lead to misunderstandings, conflicts with coworkers and hurt feelings which may hamper concentration and work performance.
Assertiveness is not aggression, but a way to communicate so that others clearly understand your needs, concerns, and feelings. It starts with the familiar advice to use “I” statements instead of “you” statements which can sound accusatory, and may lead to defensiveness instead of cooperation.
Other communication improvements include acknowledging the concerns and feelings of others in your interaction with them, and being more sensitive to what others are saying to you “beneath the surface.”

Skill 5 – Acceptance

While sometimes workplace anger is manifest in “exploding.” other times it is born of grievances held by employees over any number of workplace issues. Much research shows that learning to accept and let go of the wrongs done to you can release your anger and resentment. This, in turn, may improve your health, and help you focus on your job instead of your negative feelings.

Is “acceptance” easy? Of course not. Nor does it mean that you think that whatever happened to you was right, or that you have to like the offending person. What it does mean is “letting go” of the negative feelings you now experience when you remember a negative experience or you encounter the offending person.

Anger At Work Linked To Stress

Some people say they know just what to do when their jobs becoming too stressful, but others feel stuck and frustrated. There are tears and confrontations which can lead to poor productivity, abuse of sick days, stealing supplies, and irritability or depression.

Sometimes the stress and anger are due to home problems which the employee brings with them to work. In other cases, it is the work setting itself which is causing the problem. Too much workload, perceived lack of recognition or appreciation by management, and conflict with co-workers or supervisors are often involved.

For more information on tools to deal with workplace stress and anger (sometimes called “desk rage”), click here.