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Anger: when you’re mad as hell at work

Anger is powerful in a good and bad way.  It can motivate us to act and it can derail our good intentions and credibility.

Carne Ross, former British diplomat and founder of the Independent Diplomat, quit the British Foreign Service due to his anger over how issues in Iraq and Kosovo were handled by official powers.

The Museum of Modern Art’’s Paola Antonelli nailed an interview that led to her position as senior curator at MOMA by angrily addressing an interviewer’s dismissive statement on design. “Anger can make you do interesting things. Beneficial good can come from positive anger,” she has said

Jay Rogers, CEO of Local Motors, started an open source automotive company based partly on his anger with America’s dependence on foreign oil – and his tour of duty as an elite Marine sniper in the Middle East.

Anger helps us see what we deeply care about, and it pushes us to act on those beliefs.

How anger derails, hurts our credibility

Anger can also trigger us to say and do things that make us say and do stupid things.

Frustrations can grow so acute that we lash out when we and our bosses, colleagues and/or task forces least expect it, surprising everyone, especially ourselves.  We feel momentarily victorious finally saying what needed to be said.  The outburst relieves pent-up stress. Then we realize that we have damaged ourselves.  People have paid attention to our anger, but not necessarily our point.

When someone or something sets us off our heart starts racing, our jaw clenches, we sweat, our mouths go dry,  and the voice in our head barks at us like a drill sergeant, “Set the record straight right this minute, damn it.  Don’t be a sissy.  Give it to them.”

In a rage we say things that attack. We come across as judgmental and hot headed.  When we spew our anger, people usually run for cover or shut down as they wait for us to finish our rant.

Nothing good comes from these outbursts. Most damaging is that our anger gives others the ammunition to discredit us, labeling us as loose cannons, blowhards, short fuses, temperamental, overly emotional, hot headed, immature, unstable, lacking judgment, and maybe even an ass.   It is all code for implying not so subtly that we are not a person the organization can, or should, trust.

What a mess.

When you feel you’re about to erupt, call on behaviors that help you cool down before spouting off.  This requires enormous discipline and much practice. While I’ve  gotten better at doing this through years of experience, there are times I err.

Techniques for managing anger

Here are some techniques to consier. See what works for you, and practice, practice, practice. By controlling your anger while also finding motivation from it, you’ll be able to act with more credibility, calm and effectiveness. You’ll also be more receptive to understanding the real obstacles you need to deal with.

  • No personal attacks. Never, ever attack the person and use hurtful, rude, derogatory language towards them.  Personal attacks cut the deepest and are the hardest to recover from.  Go after the issue,  but not people.
  •  What’s it like to be them?  Try to understand what it’s like to be the person (or group) you’re angry with. What are they trying to protect? What makes them uncomfortable?  What are they afraid of?  How people talk about something conveys more information than the words themselves.  Listen for the emotion beneath the words. This empathy will help neutralize some of your anger and help you see things more clearly.
  •  Find the data: Related to the above point, consider the upsetting idea, opinion, decision or person as a piece of data to be examined. Even if it makes your bile rise, there’s something to be understood in why the view is making you angry. Put on your anthropologist hat and try to observe what the real issues are.  This calms down the negative anger and prevents you from lashing out. You’ll glean valuable insights by taking this approach, and you’ll earn credibility by showing people that they can express ideas without someone dismissing them or biting their heads off.
  • Everyone is right:  When angry we often believe we’re right, the other side is wrong.  No helpful conversations can happen when we hold this belief. Everyone’s views (and underlying emotions and threat triggers) are valid.   (Unless there is some excellent research proves otherwise. If that’s the case, show them the data and get onto objective territory as fast as you can.)  If you acknowledge that the other side’s view is valid, they are more likely to appreciate that your views may be valid. “Your views on this topic are valid.  It is risky to change a process that’s been in place for years.  Similarly, my views are valid too. There are other types of risks if we don’t begin to change this process.”   This sometimes works, and sometimes doesn’t especially with the Bureaucratic Black Belts. But it’s a practice worth practicing.
  • Acknowledge the tension and disagreement Disarm yourself and the situation by acknowledging that tensions are high and disagreements are real.
  •  “We’re all feeling frustrated and on edge abut this.  How about we go around the room and everyone shares what they’re feeling in a sentence or a couple of words? No interrupting, just everyone calmly telling us his or her position.”
  • Or, acknowledge that you’re at an impasse and suggest, “We’re not making progress because emotions are running high, even those that are unstated but bubbling under the surface.  Should we adjourn so we can all cool off?
  • “Are there any data or research or subject matter experts we could bring into the conversation to help us see more clearly?”
  • “Should we get an objective outsider to help facilitate our conversations so that we can resolve this situation?
  •  These questions recognize the tension and take an active approach to finding ways to address them.  Often people suppress their anger, going passive while the frustration continues to build, increasing the chances of a harmful emotional outburst when you least expect it.
  • Quarantine your email and your mouth: Impose a 24-hour no-email, no furious phone call quarantine on yourself. Take a walk, get out of the office. If pressed by the other person to respond, say “I have to reflect on this before being able to respond in a helpful way.” In other words, quarantine your mouth.
  •  Make a list:  Go someplace away from people and write fast channeling your emotion and trying to find answers about what to do next that would help you move forward. Writing while angry cools you down, while also capturing potentially valuable ideas. (My best ideas come when I’m angry or feeling vulnerable. The head turns off, the smart heart kicks in.) Some prompts that have been helpful to us:
  • What 10 things worry people most about this idea?
  • What 10 pieces of objective data or credible anecdotes would help people open up their thinking around this?
  • What are 10 things I can do to move the idea ahead that don’t require approvals and meetings with people who oppose the idea?
  • What 10 people could I talk to who could help me see a way to move ahead?
  •  What are the 10 worst things that will happen if I abandon this idea?

The paradox of anger

Lastly, accept that some anger will always be present and powerful for rebels, change agents and innovators. .  The secret is being aware of  the paradox of anger. It can power and it can derail. Use the power, and find ways to stop yourself from doing and saying stupid things when angry.