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Workplace Culture

Yelling at work persists despite awareness of ill effects

Meghan McCarty Carino Jun 5, 2019
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NBC Universal/Screenshot via Netflix

The results of the eighth Marketplace-Edison Research Poll show that the majority of American workers think a warm, friendly environment is important on the job. But that hasn’t stopped a lot of yelling at work.

About half of the workers polled reported having been yelled at by a co-worker, while more than a third admitted to yelling themselves.

Yelling can take many forms in the workplace, from expressions of frustration to outright hostility, but according to Liane Davey, a business strategist and author of “The Good Fight,” it all comes from essentially the same place.

“When someone yells at you it means that their emotional reaction to the situation has kind of overflowed the bounds of what would be normal behavior,” she said, noting that in many workplace situations it can appear to be an effective tactic.

“It gets people to pay attention if they haven’t been. It gets people to move more quickly if they haven’t been.”

That’s why in some high pressure industries, such as entertainment or the stock market, yelling is practically in the job description.

Nicole Disette, a securities trader, says high-volume exchanges are an everyday reality.

“You hear someone’s voice getting raised, and then a few swear words, and that’s perfectly normal,” she said. “I can’t say that I get immune to it, but it also isn’t as disruptive as I imagine it could be for some other people.”

For others, like Irvin Wheeler, an artist in Atlanta, Georgia, yelling in the workplace became traumatic. He was working for an after-school education program — not exactly what you think of as a pressure-cooker environment — until he got a new boss with a confrontational style.

He said he approached her in her office to address the yelling, which only escalated the situation. “It got to a point where she got so agitated that she was screaming at the top of her voice,” he said. “She said a few things to me that I can’t repeat.”

Wheeler started dreading going to work.

“It was deadly,” he said. “It was an eating away at you. It was, ‘what am I going to confront today that’s going to take a little bit more of my soul from me?'”

When yelling creates a hostile work environment, it can have very negative effects according to Robert Sutton, an organizational psychologist at Stanford University and the author of “The Asshole Survival Guide.”

“People have more depression and mental health problems. They’re more likely to get physically sick, they’re less likely to work hard, they’re more likely to be less creative and they’re more likely to make mistakes,” he said.

While social movements like #MeToo have raised awareness of abusive behaviors in the workplace, Sutton said that national surveys don’t show much evidence of improved civility.

“There’s a bunch of countervailing forces. People are working under more pressure and more hours than they have in the past, which makes people grumpy,” he said.

For those who catch themselves losing control at work, Liane Davey said taking a pause for self-reflection to figure out what is driving them to that point could be a big benefit for their team.

“Maybe this is their own resilience, about not investing in sufficient sleep or eating the right food or just getting some fresh air during the day,” she said.

Though yelling certainly can have negative effects, Davey said it has one advantage over other modes of confrontation: unlike sending a nasty message over Slack or email, the fall out is seen face to face.

“The key thing is that in response to that then that you actually talk about the issue,” she said — ideally in a nice inside voice.

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