Friday afternoon I was running errands when I realized that absolutely everywhere I went, there were angry people. Angry in the parking lot because a car was parked over the line, angry in the grocery store because the older lady at the self-check-out didn’t know how to use self-check-out and angry on the road because somebody in the right lane needed to cut over quickly to turn left. I also have repeatedly had the experience that, when readers disagree with me (or any writer it seems), they don’t simply express their opinion anymore but feel the need to call me (or any writer it seems) an idiot because we don’t share the same point-of-view.
As leaders, we should pay attention. Anger serves many purposes, at least in the short-run, and one of those is to oppose and offset authority. It is obvious that the current economic conditions have caused us to be more high-strung and rage provides an internal justification for setting the balance straight. When there is a perceived power imbalance we have a number of strategies to achieve equilibrium and one of them is righteous indignation. We feel we have a right to be angry which in turn tends to surface the inequality and, if nothing else, turn the attention (or power) to the angered rather than to the offense. And this move almost always eliminates any possibility of a mutual solution. Anger can be a powerful and appropriate tool when the outcomes are limited to a “go” or “no-go” set of variables. When the solution needs to be found in a more complex range of options, anger is counterproductive.
There are many books written to help people control their anger and I won’t propose to get into those strategies in such a short blog. I will however point out a somewhat controversial approach for leaders to consider. While an employee going into a fit of rage is a power-balancing move, it doesn’t have to be. By that I mean immediate acquiescence is not your only option. If it is true that an individual has a “right” to be angry, it is also true that leaders have a “right” not to reward the anger. At the point a person gives in to a rage impulse, he or she is choosing which consequence is most important…to express their anger or to solve the problem. If your intent is to solve the problem, doing so while emotions are soaring is a difficult if not impossible task. This might mean sending somebody home or forcing them to take a break before discussing the issue.
I don’t propose to have all of the answers about dealing with the anger issue but I do know that it is an ongoing challenge for leaders when they try to engage their employees or deal with the realities of an imperfect world. The first step is to ensure that you are not modeling the behavior yourself. Attempting to motivate others through anger simply reinforces the idea that you hold angry people in high respect. Rewarding angry behavior has the same outcome. Helping your followers develop conflict strategies before an issue arises, and holding them accountable to using them, may be the best strategy of all.
What do you think? Is so much anger justified? Is there a way you have dealt with this in the past from which we could all learn?