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Curb Their Anger

Curb Their Anger

In an elementary school where I used to teach, the “behavior room” (where the bad kids got sent) displayed this poster:  “It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to be mean.”

I don’t care how “invaluable” the employee is — there’s no excuse for failing to control the inappropriate expression of anger in the workplace.

Let me back up a bit.  I’ve written in this space that our culture’s denial of emotions in the workplace is just wrong. Like it or not, emotions, though messy, are central to human experience. To sweep them under the rug is to invite them to show up problematically elsewhere (like in water-cooler bitchfests, or in passive-aggressive behavior).

Besides, emotions are the source of all motivation. So instead of avoiding them, leaders must use them to build positive energy toward the project, the team, the mission.

But what do you do with the negative ones — like anger?  Recently, one of our clients asked for help on an otherwise competent, dedicated employee.  Problem is the guy has a damaging habit of losing his temper in the workplace. He gets frustrated with those who “don’t get it,” don’t work as hard as he does, or put up barriers he sees as annoying or unnecessary.  Let’s say you have someone who fits that description — what should you do?

  1. No under-rug sweeping, remember?  Have the courage to face anger’s consequences — erosion of motivation, morale, teamwork, and retention of those on the receiving end.  One way to face the consequences is to require a 360o assessment, so that everyone who works with or for him can honestly assess his behavior and its impact on the organization.
  2. Get into his perspective.  From a stance of curiosity (not blame), find out what he’s aware of, what he’s willing to take responsibility for, who he blames, what story he tells about his anger.
  3. Do everything you can — again, from a nonjudgmental, best-interests-of-the-company stance, to help him “own” his part of the responsibility for his unhealthy interactions and their consequences. Again, a 360 — or some other way to offer him honest feedback — should help. If his behavior is damaging, there’s no excuse for him not wanting to work on it.  And if he continues to blame everyone and everything else, then set clear, uncompromising expectations for behavior change anyway — with clear, uncompromising consequences.  In the long term (which is the leader’s default view, remember?), team morale, motivation and retention are more important than coddling a loose emotional canon, regardless of how important she is to the effort.  Beware, though:  it’ll be a steep uphill battle if she’s not intrinsically motivated to change.
  4. Get her help — over time. Time-honored in-the-moment anger-management practices like counting to ten, or deep breathing, or affirmations, can help.  But be aware that in the emotional intelligence realm, only diligent work over time, combined with both honest reflection and honest feedback, will make a sustainable difference. Think of three levels of that work:
  • An anger management class, combined with regular check-ins with the employee’s supervisor
  • Executive coaching, combined with regular check-ins with the employee’s supervisor
  • Psychotherapy (mental health counseling), with regular check-ins …

    1. Take a minute to reflect (it’s what leaders make time to do!) on emotional expression in your team:  on the one hand, are people free to express their emotions when they arise?  On the other hand, do they manage that emotional expression so that it doesn’t become excessive, mere whining (see my post last week), or hurtful to others?
    2. If anyone on your team falls in the latter category — excessive or hurtful emotional expression — work through the numbered steps above.  Have the courage to “make the leadership choice,” as we say in our book The Leadership Platform. Your team — hell, the success of your company — requires no less.

    About the Author

    Steve Motenko
    Steve Motenko is an executive coach, leadership trainer, and co-host of The Boss Show, a weekly podcast on workplace dynamics. Steve and his Boss Show co-host, Jim Hessler, are co-authors of Land On Your Feet, Not On Your Face: A Guide to Building Your Leadership Platform. Steve lives on Whidbey Island, Washington, with his wife and dog, whom he loves, and a cat he tolerates usually pretty well.

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