Many leaders share a common yet secret concern: a belief that they may have an anger problem.
But as I often tell my clients, anger is not a problem and should not be viewed as such. Anger is a part of the human experience. While it’s true that anger mismanaged can be destructive, anger managed properly can be a catalyst for positive change. The first step is to clear up some myths surrounding the strong emotion we call anger.
Myth No. 1: Anger is bad
When you operate from a framework that “anger is bad,” you’ll judge yourself when you feel anger, and you may suppress or deny that you have anger. Suppressing anger can contribute to health problems such as anxiety, high blood pressure and depression. If you believe anger is bad, you’ll judge others who get angry and, as a result, avoid them.
Anger is not just one emotional experience so easily described. Think of anger as residing on a continuum with many forms, expressions and levels of intensity: from mild irritations to full-blown rage; from a momentary outburst to a grudge held for years.
No wonder most of us hold a view that anger is bad.
Mythbuster: Make a clear distinction between judging the anger and judging the unproductive behavior that resulted from anger.
View the experience of anger as an energy that courses through your body when you need to pay attention to something you haven’t noticed. You need to notice that you are hungry, or that your mental resources are drained, and the timing is bad. Or anger may be telling you that emotional intensity is too high, and you need to give yourself some fun or relaxation.
Or perhaps anger is telling you that you’ve been taking on other people’s issues, and it’s time to set a healthy boundary.
Myth No. 2: I need more self-control
When you can’t seem to hold your tongue, and you can’t make a good decision, or you find yourself blowing up without notice, you may think you need more self-control. This may be partly true, and that’s why this myth is dangerous. We can all benefit from more self-control, but without awareness and adequate resources, self-control flies out the window, and we go into survival mode.
Mythbuster: Human beings only have so many resources for self-control, and without energy renewal, self-control is impossible.
For example: You’ve been keeping 12-hour days. You didn’t get any sleep last night. Your teenager stayed out all night, and you have a project due tomorrow. Oh, and you skipped lunch. How well do you think your self-control is going to work on this day? I wouldn’t bank on it. Your resources are drained. What you need is a reset. Your reset can only come when your basic needs are met, whether that’s nutrition, rest or rejuvenation.
The key is energy renewal so that you can work on some more self-control, but trying to use self-control without energy renewal only contributes to more frustration and self-judgment.
Myth No. 3: Anger must be avoided at all costs
Leaders may believe that anger must be avoided at all costs, but there is always a cost to avoidance.
When you pretend things are OK when they aren’t, you contribute to a lack of clarity and blind-side the other person. I’ve seen marriages break up — with one person surprised — simply because the other person held resentments for too long instead of addressing the elephant in the room.
The same is true for leaders who feel angry at employee performance issues. Most surprise firings could be stopped if the leader had enough conflict capacity to deal with the emotion of anger, and the courage to initiate a difficult conversation. Avoiding doesn’t solve the problem, it only creates temporary comfort.
Mythbuster: Anger should not be avoided. Avoided anger often leaks out as sarcasm, undermining, and passive aggressive behavior. Anger must be honored and channeled to a positive result.
Managing your narrative is the key to using anger for your benefit. The story you tell yourself about why you’re angry determines how you process anger and how you channel the anger. If you tell yourself that the reason you’re angry is due to someone else’s fault, you add fuel to the fire. Instead, ask yourself what the anger is requiring of you. Is anger telling you that you need to learn the skills of initiating a difficult conversation, or is the anger telling you that you need to clarify an expectation or simply to be more courageous?
Anger is neither good nor bad. Anger is energy that wants to “go somewhere,” and anger always has something to teach us about our leadership. Anger, when understood and managed can be a catalyst for personal and professional growth.
Marlene Chism is a consultant, international speaker and the author of “Stop Workplace Drama” (Wiley 2011), “No-Drama Leadership” (Bibliomotion 2015) and “7 Ways to Stop Drama in Your Healthcare Practice” (Greenbranch 2018) and an advanced practitioner of Narrative Coaching. Connect with Chism via LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter and at MarleneChism.com