So much outrage, so little time. We barely have time to get off the adrenalin of one attack of outrage before the next one hits us. On one day in the Wall Street Journal, the word “outrage” appeared 191 times. In one week in the New York Times, 3,810 times. We get consumed with outrage over things as big and morally significant as the acceptability of sexual violence in Indian society, and as insignificant as the length of Kim Kardashian’s marriage. Outrage has gone beyond being a fad to being the way we express all manner of emotions on a wide spectrum. And it has even become the accepted way of talking to each other – or more correctly, talking at each other.
The social acceptability of outrage as a societal norm is certainly an issue that needs serious public debate about its effects, but let’s look closer to home. Outrage has made its way into the workplace as well. Employees are outraged at reductions in their benefits. AIG’s former CEO was so outraged that the U.S. government had assumed rights over the company’s assets when it bailed out the company that he filed a lawsuit against government agencies. One of our client CEOs was recently outraged by what he saw as personally disrespectful behavior on the part of one of his executive team members. And she, in turn, was outraged that he would judge her so unfairly. An employee defrauded his company, and when his dishonesty was discovered, he justified it by his outrage over management’s lack of sensitivity to how hard they push employees.
When outrage becomes an acceptable norm in the workplace, as it has in the fabric of our country, what are workplace costs of this phenomenon? There are three significant dangers that bear careful assessment in your workplace.
Outrage’s effects on clear thinking
Merriam- Webster defines ‘outrage’ as ‘the anger and resentment aroused by injury or insult’. Physiologically, when we feel injury or insult, it triggers a response from the amygdala, a small structure in the brain responsible for the ‘fight-or-flight’ response. The amygdala is physiologically designed to detect personal danger and get us focused on it – to the exclusion of other things. When triggered, it focuses brain activity on automatic responses (attack or escape), and acts to close down rational thought, too slow a brain process when we feel endangered. So when we allow outrage to be an acceptable way of talking to each other at work, we are accepting a loss of rounded, rational thinking in our workplace interactions – and getting decisions that may be more knee-jerk reactions than thoughtfully balanced conclusions.
Outrage’s effects on collaboration and relationships
When people interact through outrage, the emotional hijacks they feel wear down both their energy, and their trust of others. The relationship between the CEO and his executive team member (mentioned earlier) have become guarded on both sides as a result of their feelings of insult or injury. They keep adding fuel to the fire of outrage by expressing to others how insulted they feel, but they don’t relinquish their anger by talking it through together. What’s worse, others in the organization feel they need to line up behind one opponent or the other, so the mistrust and outrage spread. It’s obvious that in a dynamic of outrage, not only are personal relationships damaged, but the organization’s collaboration ability is sub-optimized.
Outrage’s effects on accountability
Expressing ourselves through outrage, as opposed to through the myriad of other available emotional options, also has the effect of amping up our moral certainty about how justified our position is. So when the dishonest employee finds himself so outraged over management’s hard-driving policies that he can justify stealing from the company, he has built up a moral argument for himself that what he is doing is just recompense for his poor treatment. His sense of honesty and accountability is compromised by his outrage. In less extreme circumstances, when there are regular incursions into outrage among employees, or peer-to-peer, it simply reduces the accountability people feel toward one another, to their management, and to their jobs. Remember that the insult or injury push the amygdala to ‘fight or flight’. Most people do nothing aggressive, but they instead slip away from their responsibility.
The 19th century British politician Benjamin Disraeli said, “A person’s fate is their own temper.” An organization’s fate can also be impacted by the health of its emotional expressions – and the anger associated with continual outrage may lead to a fate no organization would intentionally invite. Is it time to take stock of the emotional climate of your organization?
Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant