What if I told you that the anger you feel is actually fear? Would that make you more angry? Anger is a strong emotion, and it’s hard to release once we’ve begun to feel it. Anger can be a corrosive energy, both at work and at home, and the idea of anger management is almost a cliché. As a leader, managing all of your emotions is important, but managing your anger is crucial. The effect that uncontrolled anger can have on your relationships with staff, vendors, or clients can be devastating. One moment of anger can undo years of trust, friendship, and goodwill.
Despite the damage it can cause, anger is more acceptable in the workplace than almost any other emotion. Think of the co-workers (and leaders) you’ve known who freely displayed anger, or were known as being a hothead in the office. In many cases, these people are quite successful because their anger is intimidating, and they get what they want by threatening other people. However, ruling by fear doesn’t make for loyal, engaged employees, and sooner or later, unmanaged anger becomes a problem.
So how are anger and fear related? Fear is generated by the oldest part of our brains – sometimes referred to as the reptilian brain. This part of our brain has one job, and that’s to make sure we survive. The reptilian brain is directing us when we talk about “fight or flight”, but it’s other mantra is “lack or attack”. All of our fears stem back to either lacking something, or being attacked. Anger is an emotional response to protect us from danger. When our lizard brain feels fear, it sometimes triggers anger as a defence against being attacked.
Anger is a useful emotion if you are actually being physically attacked. It gives you a shot of adrenalin and helps you fight off your attacker. However, in a work environment, if your fear is that your staff don’t respect you because one of them interrupted you in a meeting, generating anger might not be the best response for that threat.
Understanding the connection between anger and fear is a great start in managing your anger at work (or anywhere, for that matter). For example, say you have a colleague who seems to have the ability to make you angry often. It might be a personality clash, but it might also have a basis in fear. In order to figure that out, spend some time delving into the true cause. Journaling or talking to a coach can help you sort through the emotions and get to the root. You may find that this person does something specific that threatens you, or you may find a common thread in this person and others who trigger your anger.
For example, I have been known to have a bad temper, and I’ve worked to control my anger for most of my life. In the past couple of years, I did some real digging around in my anger and found that a common hot button for me is when I think someone is going to get away with something. I may fear that if I follow the rules (and they don’t) that I will miss out on something. When I feel what seems like irrational anger, I now apply the rule of, “Do I think this person is getting away with something?” Often I find that indeed, my anger is stemming from a fear of injustice or unfairness. This has not necessarily made me less prone to bursts of anger, but it has helped me to rationalize it and diffuse it faster.
Practicing leadership comes in many forms, and managing anger may be a lifelong practice, with some success and some failures. The key is feeling that you can control your responses, which allows you to be less reactive, which makes you a better leader.