Anger is usually viewed as a disrupting, destructive emotion, especially in business — unless, of course, you’re a well-placed executive without those limitations. The religious typically view anger as bad stuff, something we should set aside and, to quote St. Paul, never go to sleep with. But like most generalities, there are exceptions. Indeed, there are times when anger is strategic, and also times when it’s simply not useful to set anger aside, much less forgive the target of your anger.
To be clear, studies have shown that anger evolved as a means to help us express feelings of being undervalued. Showing anger signals that if we aren’t treated fairly or if we don’t get treated fairly, it’s going to cost the other person(s) either harm or benefits. It’s that emphasis I want you to consider.
I’m not talking about the irrational, lowbrow rants of the Rush Limbaughs of our political world, and in this paper I’m not referring to the anger of hostility — the hyperbolic, imbalanced heat that only flares tempers. Nor to the anger that does not listen and is completely unwilling to make compromises. Furthermore, I’m certainly not referring to that corrosive emotion that can run off with both your mental and physical health. Strategic, productive anger may be initially emotional, even highly emotional, but also deliberate and disciplined. It is a behavior that is often calculated, a calculation that flows out of the situation.
Studies have found that people induced anger within themselves if they perceived personal benefit. The research emphasized, however, that the anger demonstrated must be authentic. One study, for example, found that faking anger in a negotiation setting fails to achieve objectives. It can cause a partner to see you as untrustworthy and result in more demands upon you.
The problem with that conclusion is that there is no real means for assessing the ability of others to define anger as faked or authentic. Furthermore, like Jeff Pfeffer, I’ve long understood that authenticity is misunderstood and overrated. Indeed, emotions, including anger, can be and often are subject to personal management. Successful leaders understand that using emotions strategically is essential for effective leadership, and they spend time developing those competencies.
Emotional acting can be a significant means for managing work relations and for changing identity. Those who view that as problematic tend to hold a static definition of the person. Instead, we understand identity as flexible and manipulable, and that there is no “true self.” In other words, as Hazel Markus of Stanford tells us, there’s a whole cast of characters in our hearts and minds. The smart leader, on occasion, lets people see his emotions, inauthentic or otherwise.
Water-cooler conversations during or after a negotiation often reflect questions about whether or not a participant’s anger was authentic, but often the conversation concludes with the participants deciding that the anger was authentic, especially when the individual was perceived as powerful. Of course, some people are far better actors than others, making the emotional assessment difficult.
Research also reveals that anger works better when it’s directed at an issue, rather than at those arguing an issue. Inevitably, when focusing on the person, it’s motives that are front and center. Motives, however, are internal and incapable of accurate assessment. So it’s wise to focus on the tangible, measurable, quantitative facts of the matter, not on motives.
Significantly, anger can sometimes clarify boundaries, needs, and concerns, thus benefiting all. One of my rules is that you only get angry at people who are significant to you. We simply don’t waste energy on insignificant people. That’s why we get angry at family members, or the neighbor next door, but not the neighbor down the street. Even in those situations, focus on the issues, not the person. You’ll find that anger can become leverage for more effective negotiation, clarifying and resolving boundaries and issues. Anger can drive people to work out mutually satisfying resolutions.
Finally, anger tends to be associated with the loss of control. That’s not always true. The truth, instead, is that anger has clear applications and obeys rules like those listed above. It may be blunt and messy, but understanding its usefulness in business and life can result in better deals, galvanize people, and improve all our lives.
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.