Looking for a promotion? Control your temper

Credit: Edmon De Haro

Meena Thiruvengadam | Mar 10, 2020

Expressing anger may be a tool for attaining prestige or status, in some circles. Observers associate anger with dominance, strength, competence, and smarts, according to research published in 2001.  

But a study by Chicago Booth’s Celia Gaertig and Emma Levine, New York University’s Alixandra Barasch, and University of Pennsylvania’s Maurice Schweitzer suggests there’s a limit to the respect anger commands. Too much anger, particularly in relation to the offense committed, can backfire, especially on people climbing corporate or social ladders, the researchers argue. Exhibiting too much anger can harm the perceptions of competence and warmth, traits that tend to drive hiring and leadership decisions. The more intense the anger, the more likely others may suspect self-serving or harmfully intentioned motives. 

The researchers conducted seven studies, some involving fake beverage tasting. In one of the studies, they asked groups of six participants to rate the best-tasting beverage presented in a lab. Both options were actually Coca-Cola, and the researchers didn’t tabulate participants’ responses, as the study was essentially just a decoy. Each group secretly included two actors, one of whom spilled soda on the other’s cell phone, eliciting an angry reaction that was either moderate or more intense. Then the participants had to pick a leader for a group activity, and in doing so rated each other’s (including the angry actor’s) competence and leadership potential.

Actors who reacted with intense anger rather than annoyance were perceived as less competent and were less likely to be selected for leadership roles. The responses held for participants who watched a video of the lab charade rather than participating in it. “Expressing high-intensity anger can be harmful for how an individual is perceived in social settings,” the researchers write. 

In another experiment, the researchers had people on Amazon Mechanical Turk read about negative workplace scenarios and the level of anger displayed by the people involved.  Again, the results suggest that the intensity of anger plays a role in how observers perceive the person who expresses it. MTurk respondents viewed too much anger from people in the scenarios as indicating that they were less competent and warm, and that they had problems with self-control, the researchers find. 

When anger seems unwarranted, an inability to moderate the emotion leads to particularly negative perceptions. A participant who expressed a lot of anger—particularly in response to a situation in which little harm was done—was perceived as less competent and less warm than someone expressing mild to moderate anger, sadness, or no emotion, the study finds. 

To be sure, failing to express anger in circumstances that warrant it can also be a negative. In certain situations, a leader is expected to display some anger and stand up for others who have experienced harm, for example. 

But in general, being able to regulate strong emotions may be helpful, and could even mean a better chance of promotion. “Although mild expressions of anger may boost status, high levels of anger expressions harm status,” the researchers write.