The Taboo of Anger

angry and furious announcement - businessman spitting fireAnger is one of the most powerful emotions in the human repertoire.  It drives people to collective action, as in the civil rights movement and the recent election, and also in sports – have you seen the New Zealand rugby team the All Blacks perform their ritual haka before each game?  But anger can be destructive as well.  It can generate hurt feelings, damaged relationships, divisiveness, anxiety, inaction or outsized reactions, and in extreme situations, irreparable ruin of people or property.  That potential for damage and conflict makes it a feared emotion.

By and large, anger carries a taboo in the workplace.  We rightly value cooperative work, courteous communication, and restrained conflict.  These behaviors oil the machine of productivity.  Introducing anger into the equation disrupts the machinery.

Emotional Intelligence ‘founder’ Daniel Goleman speaks about one of the key principles of EI, self-management, as “the ability to control or redirect disruptive impulses and moods”.  What disruptive impulses and moods do you think he was referring to?  To be fair to Goleman, he categorizes other disruptive moods, such as fear, in his suggestions about need for self-management.  But there’s a large consideration of anger in his and other authors’ discussions about managing emotional responses.

Anger takes many forms.  Indeed, many languages have multiple words to express types of anger – German has five different words.  We associate explosive responses with the word anger, but there is also passive-aggression (think of sarcastic, mocking people), retaliatory anger (think of the plotters who work in the background to settle scores), or paranoid anger (think of people who believe others have something that’s rightfully theirs).  The list goes on – anger is human and complex.

So if anger is largely something to be ‘managed’ for us to be healthy human beings, and it is certainly not seen as a hallmark of a great leader (optimism trumps negativism), how can we as leaders manage our own anger in a productive way – and more importantly, set a tone for others to do so in the workplace?

There are several approaches to managing anger.  Common wisdom has grown up around some of them – but research gives us a more useful picture of what works well.  Let’s examine them.

Common wisdom’s uncommon errors

Bury it.  As it relates to anger in polite company, including in the workplace, burying or stuffing anger has been encouraged as a sign of a genteel, well-managed personality.  But research shows what we instinctively know: this approach has a cost.   Studies link anger repression to health problems such as heart disease.  Perhaps more importantly, the anger still exists and exerts a corrosive influence on a person’s interactions.  Buried anger may be seen in passive-aggressive behavior, which is no better accepted as ideal leadership style than bursts of rage.

Vent it a little.  There’s a school of thought that suggests that letting off a little steam, if managed, is a healthy way to deal with anger.  It assumes that by releasing the pressure, the anger will diminish.  Science demonstrates that the reverse is the case.  Expressing anger, rather than reducing the emotion, builds it.  The more we vent, the angrier we become.  Studies link venting of anger with increased, rather than decreased, aggression.  Venting anger builds our justification for our inappropriate beliefs and actions.

It doesn’t stop there.  Venting anger, like burying it, is linked to health problems, especially cardiac problems.  And it has obvious fallout in our relations with others.  So while it may feel temporarily satisfying, venting is probably the least effective behavior, and poorest tone for a leader to set.

Work it off.  Another nugget of common wisdom suggests that just hitting the gym (or hitting a punching bag) can release the ill effects of anger.  But research shows that, although exercise in general is beneficial, it doesn’t reduce – and in fact increases – the physiological symptoms related to anger, like heart rate and blood pressure.  So exercise has the impact of extending the anger rather than reducing it.

Productive approaches to anger

Release it.  The immediate issue with anger is the physiological reaction we experience.  We can’t act responsibly as a leader while the body is pumping hormones through the bloodstream that elicit our fight-or-flight syndrome and close down our rational thought.  So a first action for dealing with anger is finding ways to release the physiological effects.  The proverbial counting to ten, or taking deep breaths, are good advice, in that the body needs time to reduce the hormone levels in the bloodstream.  Beyond that, doing anything calming is useful – looking at a picture of your child, petting your cat or your dog, laughing at a silly comedy, listening to soothing music, meditating.  Releasing the physiological effects of anger is a critical first step in managing anger.  Without this step, it is unlikely that any other tactic will be effective.

Redirect it.  Once the physical effects of the anger have been calmed, it is possible to begin to deal more productively with anger.  One of these ways is to reframe it with an empathic viewpoint.  Instead of focusing on someone’s insensitive comment as a personal attack, how might you reframe it as the result of that person’s exhausting day, or overriding concerns about a sick loved one?  Using empathy helps to balance anger.

So does appreciation.  Instead of thinking about what was so miserably wrong, redirect your attention to what you appreciate in life – your supportive spouse or boss, your relaxing hobby, your play time with your kids.  This activity has the effect of literally redirecting brain activity from negativity to positive and innovative outcomes, evidenced in numerous research studies.

Detaching from the situation – becoming the fly on the wall instead of an active player – also has been shown to reduce anger and allow more rational understanding of a situation to take over.

All of these actions are directed toward redirecting one common behavior that occurs with anger – rumination.  When we ruminate about a perceived injustice, we keep it front and center, and even magnify it – but we don’t work on the problem productively.  So a second step in managing anger is to break the rumination cycle.

Channel it.  Finally, the best leaders take anger to the next step.  Once the anger has subsided, and they have had a chance to reflect on what caused it, a strong leader will look for what he or she can do to prevent a similarly destructive future scenario.  This may include actions like apologizing for an outburst to allay fears, or having a ‘crucial conversation’ with a colleague about what precipitated the anger and how you can work more productively in the future, or getting coaching/counseling for yourself if anger is a common response.

Good leaders will also look for the opportunities that anger uncovers.  If there’s a strong response, what have we been ignoring, missing, or intentionally avoiding in our decision-making – and how do we need to be sure we bring in these dissenting points of view, or look for the larger picture they offer?

Anger is powerful – and present in all parts of our lives, including work.  It is often feared – and often left unaddressed as a valid human response.  It is unwise to ignore it.  Its disruptive effects require thoughtful intervention that releases the harmful emotional responses and redirects and channels our anger toward more productive future leadership behavior.  These behaviors distinguish the self-aware and self-managing leader from others, and set a tone in the workplace that anger is normal – but the expectation is that it is managed productively.

Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant

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