Anger and Problem Solving

I was doing some reading for my dissertation and came across an article titled “Others’ Anger Makes People Work Harder Not Smarter: The Effect of Observing Anger and Sarcasm on Creative and Analytic Thinking.” It caught my attention as I’ve spent far too many hours of my life working in customer service dealing with people’s problems and having to find ways to solve them to their satisfaction. Often times I did have to use some creativity in order to do this. Whether that was through having to use my creativity to use the technology at work in order to rectify a faulty charge, or find a creative solution to make the customer happy again and ensure their return to the establishment.


The authors of the study found that an angry customer essentially inhibits creative problem solving though. Those who had to help an angry customer were successful in analytical problem solving, but not creative problem solving. This is an interesting find to me. To me it is saying that the either the upset customer is communicating things in a way that does not lend itself to creative solutions, or more likely the employee is flustered and just wants to solve things as quickly as possible and wants to take as linear an approach as possible.


If an angry customer needs a creative solution though they are more than likely going to leave just as upset as when they encountered the problem. “We predicted and confirmed that others’ anger is a situational cue that activates prevention-oriented motivation and emotions, which in turn restricts people’s ability for complex thinking (Miron-Spektor, Efrat-Treister, Rafaeli, & Schwartz-Cohen, 2011).  So the bigger question is whether or not there is a way that we can circumvent this issue. Dealing with people’s emotions is inherent in dealing with people and especially working with people. There is another article that found that more than half of all decisions made in an organization fail (Nutt, 1999). This was because managers are under too much pressure to come to a solution to the problem quickly without understanding the real issue.


Are these things related? Are the increased emotions in the face of a crisis really inhibiting the ability to think clearly and rationalize our way through to a creative solution? As a consultant who has worked in education, non-profit, and for-profit settings I can attest to the importance of effective solutions to problems and improved communication in order to do so. One of the big issues I have convinced a few of my clients on improving was the communication from top to bottom. This has increased morale, time-management, and, more importantly, limits the anger and frustration that everyone has because the clarity they all have about their direction. As communication improves, the problems seem to go away. Is this because they can creatively fix a problem and use all of their faculties to look at them?


Keeping a level head and effective communication can help to effectively solve those problems you may be having. It may be a “fight or flight” response to get the angry customer’s problem solved and get them out the door or it may just be lack of training on how to communicate when emotions run high, but it is something very important to address in your business and personal life.