Anger gets a bad rap.
I startled a snake in Singapore once. Our dogs were barking, so my mother went out to investigate, and saw a cobra uncoiling itself near our house. The cobra started slithering away. In a fit of teenage testosterone I told my mum I’d take care of the snake, grabbed a pole, strutted over and wildly jabbed at its head. I missed but came close enough that the snake — in a blur of motion — whipped around, hissed and reared two feet up. It’s hard to recall much else because at that point I had the right idea to panic, scream, and flee the scene.
As with any animal, when you threaten a snake it gets angry. Can you think of an animal that doesn’t get angry? Ever tease your cat too much? Surprise a sleeping dog? But — unlike many people — they just get angry and move on. My snake, after its hissy fit, slithered away.
Basic anger is just so… normal. It is simply “displeasure”. And when seen as such, and responsibly expressed, it is discharged and gone, like an electrical current.
The problem with anger happens when you don’t express it responsibly. Suppressed or unexpressed anger devolves into emotions and behaviors that cause long term harm — such as resentment, aggression, hostility. All of these involve an intention to harm someone, and end up hurting the holder too.
When I ask a leader I’m coaching why they might fear expressing their own anger, they often refer to a traumatic experience they had with a bully or an aggressive boss. “I don’t want to be that guy!” they’ll say. But in each case, we find they’re describing the harmful behaviors that result from unaddressed anger.
This lack of distinction between a simple emotion and the harmful behaviors it can beget is the cause of a lot of communication issues.
For example, in our work I meet polite, kind leaders who are so afraid of experiencing or expressing their anger that they end up becoming resentful and fearful — and unwilling to tolerate anger in others. They unwittingly create teams where no one can handle meaningful debate, disagreement or dissent. Teams that are so fragile they might break apart if someone says something rude. This stigma around anger is even more problematic for women, who are subject to a gender bias against expressing it (that’s worth a separate blog).
Being an effective leader and building great teams means tolerating your own anger and others’ better — both feeling it, and also expressing it responsibly. I’ve found that the best leaders convey “disappointment” or “displeasure” sincerely and effectively without aggression and with an intention to establish a safe working environment. They look for the root cause of others’ anger to resolve it, not defend against it. And they create strong, trusting relationships with their teams as a result. They create teams that argue with heat, and no one gets burned.
If you want to get started on better expression of anger, here’s a very simple starting point: Follow the advice of an elementary school teacher and use your “I” message in talking to someone about your anger:
“I don’t/didn’t like…”
“I don’t/didn’t like it when…”
“I don’t/didn’t like it that…”.
Start there the next time you notice any anger uncoiling within, and notice how it slips (slithers?) more readily and less harmfully through you, without hurting you or the other person.
P.S. if you want to learn more about becoming an effective leader, with less fear and more love, reach out.