Yelling at work isn’t always unprofessional

Female tiger Dima (L) roars at Male lion Kaser at Jordan’s Zoo near Amman April 13, 2004. The Amman Zoo director said on Tuesday that…
Female tiger Dima (L) roars at Male lion Kaser at Jordan’s Zoo near Amman April 13, 2004. The Amman Zoo director said on Tuesday that…
Image: Reuters/Ali Jarekji
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The worst boss I ever had was a yeller. She’d scream at me for unpredictable reasons, like making copy-editing suggestions she deemed overzealous. I didn’t cry in front of her—mostly because I was in shock during her outbursts—but afterward I’d go back to my office, shut the door, and let the tears roll.

I was reminded of this awful dynamic by Jennifer Barnett’s recent essay on how she left a prestigious career in media because of her boss, a magazine editor with an alleged “rage problem” whose power and influence made him impervious to any consequences for his purportedly toxic behavior. Barnett writes that her boss’s anger “was largely directed at women … He refused to acknowledge his own assistant in any way shape or form, except to yell at her in front of everyone.” She describes performing “a tightrope walk every day to do my job and keep the respect of the staff I managed despite being publicly yelled at or shut out of meetings by our boss.”

No one should have to work under such circumstances, and companies certainly shouldn’t tolerate managers who abuse staff and create a culture of fear and intimidation. But at the same time, especially during the pandemic, workplaces are having to evolve to make room for the fact that we’re all bound to experience emotions while we’re on the clock—including anger.

Acknowledging our humanity at work means allowing people to express themselves, too. While it’s not okay to yell at someone, yelling can be a natural expression of frustration, just as crying at work is sometimes inevitable. “If we’re going to normalize emotion,” says Liane Davey, an organizational consultant and author of The Good Fight, “we can’t just normalize one half of the spectrum.”

How men and women express anger

Yelling can be “intimidating and overpowering,” Davey acknowledges. And there’s no doubt that “women, people of color, people with less power are the victims of that.” When a boss yells at his young female assistant, or a white woman yells at a Black female co-worker, they are exercising their privilege to lash out at people who aren’t on a level playing field. The assistant knows she doesn’t have enough social capital to fire back, while the Black woman may rightfully worry if she defends herself, she’ll be the one who gets in trouble with HR or subjected to “angry Black woman” stereotypes.

But it’s also true that yelling is a common way to express anger—perhaps especially among men, because in the US and many other Western countries, women and men are socialized to express their emotions in gendered ways. Women, who are frequently taught to suppress their anger, may cry when they’re mad, whereas men who have been brought up to associate yelling with old-school masculinity may be prone to shouting. After all, in a culture where male aggression is so widely accepted that football teams have a designated “get-back coach” to rein in others’ fury, it’s no surprise that some men tend to swear or raise their voices when they get steamed.

These admittedly are generalizations—there are plenty of men who never yell, just as there are women, like my old boss, who scream with abandon. But Davey believes that just as it’s sexist to judge women for crying at work, it’s unfair to condemn a common behavior associated with men as entirely unacceptable.

What’s important, she says, is to distinguish between yelling that’s harmful to others and yelling that’s more about releasing stress. In the latter category, I offer up the example of another former co-worker, a lovely man who was prone to occasional shouting, but never in the form of a personal attack. Instead, he’d bang his head against the desk or bark at his computer. I never felt threatened or uncomfortable when I witnessed this; I just thought, Oh, this nice man is having a rough time.

“It’s the directionality,” agrees Davey. “Is there someone on the other end of the emotion? And that’s where we need to have important conversations about collateral damage … It’s not cool, as the angry person, if you’re directing that hostility toward [someone else]. But it’s not the presence of anger that is unprofessional.”

What to do when someone yells at work

None of this is to say that someone who makes a habit of yelling at their computer or the air should be applauded—co-workers may still be wary of approaching a colleague with a reputation as a hothead, which can then interfere with their ability to deliver vital information or engage in healthy conflict. But Davey says that when workplace cultures accept the idea that people will get mad on occasion, colleagues can then have conversations about what’s rankling them at an earlier stage, before emotions explode.

“What I teach people to do, whether they’re seeing upset emotions or angry emotions, is to use the line, This is important. What do I need to understand?” Davey says. “People yell when they don’t feel heard, when they don’t feel validated, when they don’t feel understood. So what we want to is to have space that, every once in a while if you lose your cool, [the other person says]Okay, let’s lean into that. Let’s make sure that you feel heard.” The same response works well when you spot a co-worker on the verge of tears, too.

As for the person who’s in a heightened state—whether it’s about feeling pressured, let down, ignored, mistreated, or misjudged—the important thing is to take responsibility for the emotions. “Never should we be encouraging people to put their emotions on others or blame other people for those emotions,” Davey says.

A recent article in the New Yorker on the decline of yelling suggests that younger generations are already internalizing this lesson. “They’ve figured out it’s not a very effective way of communicating,” Drew Ramsey, a psychiatrist and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, told the magazine.

Getting mad can feel good sometimes, but getting your point across is even better.