At some point in every training, I ask the question, “When is anger appropriate in the work place?” In every training so far, the response has been, “Never.” Good to hear; yet, despite this understanding, anger continues to be at least a tolerated behavior in the culture of most organizations. Let’s take a closer look.
Anger in the work place is inevitable. Put human beings together in any environment for a long enough period of time and anger will eventually occur. The feeling of anger however is not the problem; rather, it is it’s specific behavioral expression like hostility, attack, yelling, violence, etc. that does the damage.
Like any emotion, anger is an energy that lets us know we are being affected by an experience. In the case of anger, it lets us know when we can’t or aren’t getting what we want or need. This is an important message that should not be ignored. As a matter of fact, when we ignore anger we can lose track of it and it can surprise us by jumping out as reactivity when we least expect it; sometimes at someone who may not even be the source of our upset. This is called misplaced anger – the “kick the dog” syndrome.
Anger is a hot energy that pushes us to act quickly and forcefully to overcome the thing or person who has gotten in our way. Somehow our survival mechanism of fight has gotten triggered and the adrenalin shoots through the body readying us for confrontation and battle: the heart beats harder and faster, blood pressure shoots up, respiration increases, muscles tense, temperature goes up and we are seconds away from blast off. The feeling of anger, in and of itself, is not of course, a justification to act on it. The body, the mind, and our actions are still our responsibility to manage according to our values.
So when anger hits we need to slow down and decompress; let the lid off to safely vent the pressure. These simple strategies have stood the test of time so much so that they are cliché: count to 10, take some deep breaths, talk to an appropriate, trusted friend, get outside and walk for a bit, etc. However you do it, slow down so you can get the intellect, rather than all this emotional energy, back in charge of deciding how you will respond. Check your resting pulse. Researchers tell us that we need 20 minutes minimum to get our heart rate down to 90 beats per minute – the sign the intellect is predominant over emotion – after our anger has been triggered. We do this not only to spare our co-workers from our misbehavior but also to increase our odds of succeeding with them.
Let’s recall our definition of Emotional Intelligence, “The ability to be aware of one’s inner experience, the other’s, and then to behave intentionally to create a desired outcome.” If our emotion is dominating our intellect, our inner experience is not a reliable partner in creating a desired outcome. So we wait. We slow down and close the door on the option of reactivity. We give up the lesser good of going off on someone (let’s admit it, it does feel good – at least until you get conscious of what you’ve just done) for the greater good of preserving the relationship and getting or at least attracting more of what we want. Giving up reactive anger and giving up our position or needs are two entirely different things.
Exercise: Identify an experience where you may become reactive with anger. Think of the desired outcome you really want to achieve with this person. What needs to change on their part, within the organization, or yours to resolve this issue – hopefully, once and for all? Now identify how you can best present this need to them (remembering that non-verbal communication conveys vastly more meaning than our actual words do) in a way that will attract not only their understanding but also their cooperation. At this point, anger will show itself as glaringly ineffective in attracting that outcome and cooperation. So good you waited and designed your communication!
Choosing to take the high road of a planned, rather than a reactive response takes thoughtfulness, time, and self-discipline. It is a victory expressive of an expanding Emotional Intelligence Quotient and leadership capacity. Leadership is the tough gift that helps us become better human beings – who we are and how we lead are inseparable.
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