Going Postal in the Library: Anger Management in the Library Workplace

Since 1986, there have been seven major incidents of violence involving postal workers in postal facilities. This violence has resulted in over 35 deaths and a new expression: “going postal” is now shorthand for explosive anger in the workplace. In a recent Gallup poll, at least 20 percent of the respondents reported that they been angry enough to want to hurt a co-worker within the previous six months (“Managing and Coping,” 2005). And workplace violence has occurred in libraries. In San Antonio, Texas, in 2008, Alan Godin shot and killed fellow academic librarian Devin Zimmerman. Their longstanding feud was fueled by Godin’s jealousy of Zimmerman’s position. While the San Antonio shooting is the only known incident to occur in libraries, the potential for violence in library is to be taken quite seriously.

Most people have gotten angry at work at some point, but few people’s anger ends in violence: rare or short-term anger is unlikely to become dangerous. How does one distinguish reasonable anger from the anger that may result in violence against self or others?

Certain life-altering events may lead to sustained, hidden anger. Depression is sometimes described as anger turned inward. Has your co-worker been demoted or lost a promotion? Has there been a lot of marital trouble or a divorce, or even a death of a close family member? These events may not result in recognizable anger at first, but  it may help you to know that it would be wise to be on the lookout for any other signs of anger.

There are generally accepted signs of anger that supervisors should address, and the sooner the better. Eileen Brownell (n.d.) lists five behaviors that are easy to observe and are often cause for concern:

  1. Habitual lateness
  2. Procrastination in the completion of assigned tasks
  3. Frequent sighing
  4. Over reactions or excessive irritability to trifles
  5. Sarcasm, cynicism, or flippant comments in conversation

Brownwell suggests that other, less overt, behaviors, may also indicate deep-seated anger:

  1. Being drowsy at inappropriate times
  2. Chronic depression
  3. Slow movements and a stiff neck

Angermanagement.com also suggests that much workplace anger stems from “cultural incompetence” (“Managing and Coping”, 2005). Cultural incompetence in the workplace occurs when an employee’s attitudes (about self, others or life in general) predispose the employee to act in ways that are irrational or that demonstrate disrespect to others. The culturally incompetent employee tends to be insensitive to other people’s feelings and ways of understanding and doing things, and lacks insight into other people’s values and beliefs.

Hopefully, your library workplace will never experience workplace violence. But for the sake of employee safety, management should develop a clear plan to address and diffuse potential anger. When confronting a potentially angry employee, management should (1) act quickly, (2) speak with the employee in private and (3) respect the employee at all times during their meetings.

What if you are not the employee’s supervisor, but instead their co-worker? it is often better to discuss your concerns with management than to confront the employee unless you are confident in your relationship and know how broach the subject carefully.  But, as a co-worker, you are in a better position to recognize these behaviors and you should discuss your concerns with a supervisor. The most dangerous anger is suppressed anger.

If you feel that your own anger may become a problem, do something to treat it. An excellent resource to begin with is the book Anger Kills, by Redford Williams and Virginia Williams. Through studies the authors demonstrate that anger is dangerous to your personal health, increasing the risk of heart disease and other illnesses. More importantly, it describes seventeen different strategies for controlling hostility. And if you fear that anger may lead you to hurt yourself or others, seek professional help immediately.

You have some control over your own life. It has been said that the last human freedom is the freedom to choose your own attitude. Don’t let anger get the best of you.

Reference list:

Brownell, Eileen O. n.d. How to gain control of anger in the workplace. http://www.hodu.com/management-anger.shtml

Managing and coping with Anger in the Workplace. 2005. Angermanagement.com. http://www.angermgmt.com/workplace.asp

Williams, R and Williams, V. 1993. Anger kills: Seventeen strategies for controlling the hostility that can harm your health. NY: Harper Perennial.

John B. Harer is an Associate Professor of Library Science in Department  of Library Science, East Carolina University.