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February 8, 2019
Functional Vs. Dysfunctional Anger

Over the years I’ve met with clients and business people who were resistant to working with a colleague because he or she was an “angry asshole.” But when I analyzed their statement by talking to other colleagues, I found that so-called “angry” people were a very mixed bag. Their anger differed significantly. It took me awhile to figure out that some anger served a useful purpose and some did not. But that the differences are rarely clear to most people. What I learned was that it was often helpful and enlightening to push back on “useful” anger, but that I was liable to get burned by another person’s anger.


Intuitively, I could usually figure out the anger that was being displayed, knowing whether to charge ahead or back off. Furthermore, in my seminary studies (1960) I had stumbled across a very insightful statement by St. Thomas Aquinas: “Without anger, teaching will be useless, judgments unstable and crimes unchecked.” That single statement had caused me to rethink my shallow, adolescent religious experiences with anger, making it far easier to either question or assert myself with some angry people, a competency that added to my value as a church pastor and then an executive coach. But it has always been difficult for me to explain these differences to clients or friends.


So, a few months ago, while working through some attachment theory issues, I discovered John Bowlby’s distinction between functional and dysfunctional anger.  I glommed onto his ideas, realizing that they could be highly valuable for myself and many others.


Bowlby on attachment and anger
Bowlby studied both the secure and insecure. As adults, the secure (autonomous) are those who view their early relationships as coherent, balanced, consistent and objective. But if not completely true of their family, they can readily talk about their background, warts and all. They are also able to discuss their own experiences, both favorably and unfavorably. The secure also value their relationships as influential in their own development. And so, these people are usually able to work collaboratively with others—not playing power games like withholding significant information and one-upmanship. They are also typically trustworthy and they readily demonstrate the ability to trust others.


The insecure, in contrast, normally act outside of one or more of the above conditions. Bowlby noted that the association between anger and the insecure should be especially strong in adults with insecure relationship issues. Though there is sometimes a genetic component, he indicated that the childhood experiences of the insecure “predispose” them to uncontrolled anger (see Google Scholar: Mikulincer, 1998).


The insecure tend to actually experience much stronger negative emotions, have less constructive goals, report much greater hostility, and, significantly show less awareness of the degree to which they are physiologically aroused. These same insecure people often override their anger with suppression and repression: they “stuff” it. These are activities which over the long term significantly impact their own physical and mental health. Bowlby refers to this as the “anger of anguish” and despair: highly frustrated, emotional responses—like very strong venting. Like me, you may have a work friend who regularly complains about the “stupid” actions of differing people. People may think the person is really a great guy. But his continual complaining is “covert” dysfunctional anger. You can occasionally hear this anger in extreme forms on talk radio—and see it in road rage situations.


Over the long term, these people pay a high price in mental and physical health. It shows up in conflict escalation, emotional distance, loss of social respect and physical health problems (see Mikulincer above, p. 522). Oh yeah, when this anger is regularly overt, the better companies get rid of these people.


In contrast, other studies (see Google Scholar: Mikulincer and Orbach, 1995), find that secure persons are able to demonstrate anger emotionally without being overwhelmed by the negative emotions. This plays out as the ability to express anger feelings without being overwhelmed by anger emotions and reasons. So, they can channel their anger toward productive objectives, avoid ongoing rumination on their anger feelings and actually experience little emotional impact. The secure person’s anger seems to reflect their positive beliefs about the world and themselves. Bowlby refers to this as the “anger of hope.”


Predicting anger
My experience suggests that the way most people will use anger is fairly predictable. If they tend to be fundamentally trusting of others, there’ll probably be less anger and more interpersonal problem solving. In fact, the secure will often tell you they’re angry, rather than just blast away. In other words, their anger becomes a strategic action. In stark contrast, the insecure will blast away and even act vengefully, with significant hostility. Often cynical and distrusting, they tend to use dysfunctional anger in destructive ways.


I readily pay attention to dysfunctional anger, and rarely try to problem solve or challenge it during an episode. But when the issue is important, I’ll come back at a later date and problem solve with the individual. In contrast, if the anger was essentially functional, it was clear that the individual was challenging the need for changes from me or his (it was usually a man) staff. So, I’d listen to the anger and start questioning and problem-solving with the individual. I continue to view functional anger as a sign of high priority, passion and desire for change, much in contrast with dysfunctional anger.


Because of my early experiences as a church pastor and seminary professor--highly constricting roles--I usually hid my anger--much to my chagrin, today. Today, I’d be much more upfront with my anger. In fact, I remember a couple instances on a church board when I was up front with my anger about some potential decisions. Both episodes were viewed rather positively in people’s minds, one of them resulting in a thoughtful bit of group change. My anger--and passion--were evidently important and very clear.


As a father of three daughters, on a rare occasion I made my point with some functional anger and it usually achieved my objective. I thought my daughters didn’t know what I was doing. Boy, was I in the dark! Before writing this, I talked to one of my daughters and she responded with hilarious laughter. They all knew what was going on. . . that I was elucidating a priority. . .and that they’d better pay attention and make a change. Obviously, I didn’t act out my dramatic role very often—or very well. This same daughter responded that once, in a conversation with a girl friend who was having difficulty with her dad, she commiserated, “Yeah, my dad can be a real bastard too. But actually, he’s very loving and supportive 99% of the time. The anger is just for show!” She knew I was using functional anger!  I’ve done the same thing on a few occasions with my clients—and it always paid off. But if you decide to try it, start out with a slightly raised voice—it will take practice.


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Dan Erwin, PhD, is a specialist in performance improvement. Over more than 25 years he has coached nearly 500 officers, executives, and managers from top American corporations by means of his very original, cutting-edge development program. Shockingly, you can't Google his name prior to 2008 — due to the demands of his clients. He blogs at danerwin.typepad.com, and tweets at twitter.com/danerwin.

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