ANGER IN MANAGEMENT
August 13, 2012 2 Comments
“In a controversy, the instant we feel anger, we have already ceased striving for truth and have begun striving for ourselves.”
Theologian Abraham J. Heschel (1907-1972)
Anger is a human process that has been felt by most normal people at some time and that has allowed humans to evolve, adapt and change. The flow of adrenalin that comes with anger generates a burst of energy that has enabled many people to perform beyond their normal capabilities, but unchecked anger can result in aggression against others in a way that is harmful, whether it is expressed in a verbal way or is allowed to move on to physical abuse. This flow of energy that anger generates can also result in a secondary problem, in that to some it can become quite pleasurable and hence have an almost addictive effect, particularly if it results in a sense of power.
So, if it is a natural emotion, and even if it can be controlled, is anger ever acceptable in a manager?
At a fairly early stage in my career, I had a boss who got angry with those around him openly and often, and seemed to carry anger with him as a perpetual and normal state of being. The problem was that his anger tended to target individuals rather than problems, so that even when things were going well there was always someone who was the focus of his anger.
This created a number of problems with his ability to manage and motivate his team and to interact with others.
Firstly, as his anger surfaced regularly, over time it became impossible for those around him to easily evaluate whether he was just miffed, really angry or furious, as the tone and volume of his voice when expressing anger seemed fairly constant. Anyway, when someone is screaming at you, it is hard to think about trying to define their actual level of anger, even if you have a good view of the vein throbbing in their forehead.
Secondly, because his normal reaction to any issue was to get angry, his people stopped coming to him with problems that under normal circumstances would have needed him to help resolve, so many issues were left to fester until they surfaced as a serious problem. The normal state of affairs was that he would always be excluded if there was any way that he could be left out of a loop, which meant that he was generally not aware of what was happening around him.
Thirdly, his peers saw him as someone who was impossible to deal with so offered him only minimal interdepartmental support and co-operation, which only made him angrier. We had to live through a daily diatribe about the incompetence of the rest of the organisation, despite the fact that they all seemed to get on well with each other and seemed to function well in terms of company need. This meant that it was impossible for him to build a working network for information, co-operation and support.
Fortunately he did not last long.
This early experience did however make me understand that getting angry didn’t actually achieve very much, as in arguing any point at all, the minute you get angry you have to all intents and purposes already lost the argument. I also realised that when one gets angry, one tends to stop focussing on trying to solve the problem, and are focussing more on trying to win the argument.
The reality is that when you are angry there are many reasons that you can use to justify being so, but afterwards it is very hard to find that you actually had any good ones.
I understand that anger is an emotion that is sometimes impossible to stifle, but it is better to take it out on something like physical exercise than to take it out on the source of the anger, usually another person. The focus should always be on solving the problem or issue that has generated the anger, rather than on the anger itself. There is no question that one should never take any decisions in anger, other than to just get over it, and to leave the decision process to when the anger has abated.
I believe that one of the problems with inexperienced or incompetent managers is that they see “righteous anger” as being a privilege that comes with power and position, and thus a way of showing that they are in charge, and that they are a tough boss. But true management toughness has little to do with title, and is more about setting stretch (but achievable with effort) goals for your people and ensuring that they deliver on their commitments. Toughness is about fighting for resources and funding for your team to ensure that they have what is needed to be successful. It is about not tolerating incompetents and non-contributors in your team, but only after having made every effort to help them be successful. It is rarely about losing your cool, and therefore true anger must be reserved for those rare occasions when it may actually be justified, such as for serious lapses in integrity or honesty.
It is also important to remember that when you get to anger, there is nowhere further that you can go.
As said over 2000 years ago by Aristotle (384-322 BC)
“Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.”