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Harvard Business Review

Workplace Rage

Posted on Harvard Business Review: August 16, 2010 11:17 AM

"I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!"

In the Oscar-winning film Network, the deranged fictional newscaster Howard Beale stands up in the middle of a national broadcast to shout this unforgettable phrase —which is #19 on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 most memorable movie quotes of all time. The film was set over 30 years ago, before mainstream media changes in the digital era might have provoked more journalists to utter similar rage-filled words. These days, it seems that the manifestations of madness are popping up more frequently in many realms.

Steven Slater, the Jet Blue flight attendant who cursed a passenger, grabbed some beers, and made an angry exit down an escape ramp he activated after the plane landed, is a real-life Howard Beale. He certainly showed he couldn't take it anymore. Of course, his dramatic slide off the job caused his arrest; among other violations, he jeopardized passenger safety.

There is no way that Slater's actions can be condoned. But in my informal conversations well-traveled acquaintances, sentiment ran strongly in Slater's favor as having done something they wish they could do. Some of them identified with the agony of long, overstuffed flights. A few recalled the Jet Blue passengers confined in that latrine of a tube for endless hours on the tarmac unable to get to the gate to disembark, which provoked new federal regulations limiting confinement on the ground to a "mere" three hours. Others, including medical professionals, law firm associates, and retail managers, expressed anger at employers who pile on the work, add new requirements that eat into vacations or weekends, and insist on false expressions of love toward customers all the while. Years ago, sociologist Arlie Hochschild wrote eloquently in her book The Managed Heart about the stress from occupations requiring manufactured emotions; flight attendants were her prime example.

In America today, corporate profits are high, and job creation is low. This is a potentially explosive situation. If fewer and fewer people are asked to do more and more, and then told to smile about it, their rage will grow. Most people will continue to swallow grievances and obey the rules, as crew and passengers do (amazingly) on airplanes. But if even a few Steven Slaters lose control, there is potential for great harm, as has happened tragically when workers "go postal" and bring lethal weapons to work, as some former postal service employees have done. Loss of trust means economic loss. Who will fly when they don't have to, if they feel that a pilot or flight attendant could snap at any moment? Who will eat in restaurants if they suspect that disgruntled servers might spit in the soup?

This can't be adequately dealt with solely by training, counseling, or tips for spotting disaffected employees. The root causes reach into the culture itself. One issue is declining civility. In ironic echoes of Howard Beale and Network, the media thrive on providing rancorous political fights as public entertainment. Partisan bickering is part of a wider culture of complaint and entitlement. Customers (and managers) fuel workplace rage when they forget their own obligation to treat those serving them with respect and dignity. Behind some of this is pressure for short-term profits at the expense of people—a tradeoff that might have caused HP's Mark Hurd to lose support even before he lost his job, according to the New York Times' Joe Nocera.

In studies for my book Confidence, I found that anger and blame are unproductive emotions. Sustainable high-performance cultures require leaders who invest in people and strive to improve their work conditions. Positive actions create trust. Perhaps the flight attendant's meltdown will help put these matters higher on the leadership agenda.

Unless we restore civility and a concern for how people treat one another and are treated by impersonal organizations, we'll all be "mad as hell" about something, rather than concerned and seeking productive solutions. And ,clearly, growing madness could hurt us all, individually and collectively.

Copyright © 2012 Harvard Business School Publishing. All rights reserved. Harvard Business Publishing is an affiliate of Harvard Business School.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter holds the Ernest L. Arbuckle Professorship at Harvard Business School, where she specializes in strategy, innovation, and leadership for change. Her strategic and practical insights have guided leaders of large and small organizations worldwide for over 25 years. The former Editor of Harvard Business Review (1989-1992), Professor Kanter has been named to The Times of Londonlist of the "50 most powerful women in the world".

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