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Understanding Anger: A Leadership Challenge

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Understanding Anger: A Leadership Challenge

Thoughts on Authentic Leadership

By John P. Schreitmueller, PCC, ECP-BC

Successful business owners, senior executives and professionals with significant accountabilities increasingly recognize the need to add some behavioral background to their compendium of leadership skills.  Why? Because their daily interactions involve other people.  And when you add more than one person to any leadership situation, you have all the raw materials for human behavior to reveal itself.

Furthermore, the contemporary workplace demands awareness skills top executives of the past could often ignore. Today, attracting and retaining top talent, closing highly complex transactions and dealing with diverse audiences requires of senior leadership, beyond the standard inventory of functional knowledge, a reservoir of behavioral awareness.

Human emotions are complicated.  They are sticky.  And they have tentacles that reach beyond what many leaders may suppose. But a business owner, board member, senior executive or top professional need not pursue a doctorate in psychology to achieve a level of behavioral sensitivity to thrive authentically.

Looking at behavior and how it manifests in the workplace, anger tops the list of behaviors our clients most often raise.  Anger is something that may be readily handled one day with traditional “common sense” approaches, and totally backfire the next while applying the same approaches.  This is because, unless they received specific training on behavior previously, most leaders view anger as something to be conquered, won over, subdued, punished, or even ignored.

A note here: we are not talking about workplace violence, or anything that even approaches it.  Violence, abuse – physical or psychological – or the acting out on anger that causes significant disruption must be handled swiftly and expertly.

For the purposes of our discussion, we are talking about anger that causes disconnects, missed opportunities, chronic misunderstanding, poor communication, suspicion, hard feelings and benign workplace sabotage, among many other strains.  When faced with an angry leadership team member, employee, consultant, supplier or other key stakeholders, what is the leader to do?

First, we must consider hurt, the ingredient that almost always lies behind anger.  When people feel hurt, they often become angry.  They may not even be able to process in the moment what they are really feeling.  All they know is that someone did something or something took place that caused them to feel anger.  This does not mean that the top executive suddenly becomes the duty therapist.  It does mean the executive who is dealing with the angry individual or individuals can employ a set of skills to help diffuse the anger and, even more significantly, get to the root cause or underlying belief that is causing the anger.  Difficult as it may seem in the moment, dealing with anger gives the leader an opportunity to ferret out key information without being manipulative, and forge deeper relationships with people he or she may have viewed up to that point as “difficult people” or even workplace enemies.

Secondly, anger has brothers and sisters besides its typical parent, hurt.  They are known as anxiety and fear.  When people are significantly anxious over something, they often become fearful.  When fearfulness hangs around long enough, it can further manifest as anger.  Again, most people, unless they are superbly trained in self-awareness (remember Emotional Intelligence and its cousins) are not processing in the moment all that is going on with them.  Instead, what they probably know is, they are angry.

Fear is almost always a negative motivator.  True, the fear that raises the hair on your neck in a parking lot late at night when no one else is around can be a very positive, healthy and useful tool.  That is the amygdala at work, the part of the brain that says, “hey, pal, you might be in trouble right now and I’m warning you!”  The problem is, the amygdala cannot tell the difference between fear because an axe murderer is hot on your tail, or the fear you manifest before a meeting with the top lending officer, a guy you happen to not like but must deal with, who has the power to turn your company down on financing you must have. We jokingly call the latter an amygdala hijack… your anxiety has turned to real fear… and now you are angry!  See the process?  When was the last time you walked in to a meeting with the secret bubble over your head that says, “I need to slam this guy before he slams me”?  We have all experienced that type of fear.  The skill lies in knowing what is going on when the fear turns to anger, and we (often) sabotage ourselves by coming across angry… when, in reality, we are just plain scared.

The next time you find yourself confronted with an angry leadership team member, partner or key employee, step back and consider:

  • Is this person feeling hurt as a result of something that has happened to her?
  • Is she anxious or fearful about something I don’t know?
  • How can I make it safe so she shares with me her fear without coming across manipulative or patronizing?
  • If we address her fears constructively, what authentic progress could we make going forward?

The key is to confront anger out of curiosity instead of instantly becoming forcefully defensive, or retaliating angrily yourself.  When we approach anger with curiosity, it is often amazing what comes out.  When was the last time you had an argument with your spouse, life partner or a loved one?  What was the argument really about?  Was it about who’s going to take out the trash, or was it really about the negative comment you made to him as you left the neighbor’s party 3 months ago, and about which he is still seeking closure?  If you could replay the argument, and you had simply looked at him out of care and curiosity and asked what…what would have happened?  Chances are, the outcome would have been along much more positive lines.

Now, let’s take it a step further. What’s the difference whether you were dealing with your loved one or with a key employee? True, the sexual tension or family bond is not there, and lots of the personal baggage is not there.  But. In both instances, you are dealing with humans, and they are both subject to the ingredients of anger of which they may not be aware.  As an authentic leader, you have the obligation to gain that level of awareness, to see in your people what may be going on with them.

When you walk in to the office tomorrow for the unpleasant meeting you’ve anticipated, or when you get on that conference call you may have been dreading, consider our conversation here about anger, hurt, anxiety and fear.  Remember, you are dealing with human beings and the complexities of human behavior.  Anger is almost always a derivative of hurt, anxiety or fear.  Your job is to understand what is before you, and to make it safe for others to let you know what is going on with them.  It doesn’t mean you become the office fairy godmother, and it doesn’t mean you’ve suddenly become a wimp.  It does mean your journey to authentic leadership has taken a giant step.


John P. Schreitmueller, PCC, ECP-BC leads a coaching, counseling and consulting practice for senior executives, business owners and professionals.  His offices are in Atlanta, Georgia and Sarasota, Florida.


Copyright 2017 by Resolute Consulting Group LLC




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