16 January 2024

Go ahead, get mad - but do it constructively

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Angry man at work

Does anger give us the emotional charge we need to make progress on hard problems? Photo: Lead Read Today.

Jessica Stillman puts the case for anger as a useful motivating tool for solving otherwise intractable problems at work.

Anger at work has a bad reputation, and deservedly so.

A host of studies show that psychological safety, or the feeling that your team has your back, is critical to workplace performance.

Other research shows that toxic behaviour, such as being unfair or aggressive, is one of the top reasons employees quit.

Clearly, yelling at your team because you can’t handle your own emotions — or as an extremely misguided motivational technique — is a terrible approach to management.

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However, have we taken the repression of anger at work too far? Is making everything safe and cheery and calm actually robbing us of some of the emotional charge we need to make progress on hard problems?

New research and leadership experts suggest the answer just might be yes. We’ve all experienced times when we were faced with a roadblock — from a stuck screw to a stalled project — that simply wouldn’t budge until we became so annoyed that a surge of determination pushed us forward.

My own mother claims she finally managed to quit smoking after decades thanks to sheer rage at her addiction, but these are anecdotes, not science.

Is there any hard data showing anger can be useful for unsticking tricky problems? Yes, thanks to new research by scientists out of Texas A&M University, recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

In a series of studies with more than 1000 participants, the scientists tested the value of anger in driving people towards tough goals.

For example, would looking at pictures likely to make subjects angry help them complete difficult word problems or computer games that tested their concentration? The answer, it seems, is a resounding yes.

First author of the study, Heather Lench, said the findings demonstrated that anger increased effort towards attaining a desired goal, frequently resulting in greater success.

It seems that anger is a form of arousal that gives us energy and determination in the face of some of life’s most trying tests.

There are some management professors and coaches who probably wouldn’t be surprised by these findings.

Harvard’s Frances X. Frei and executive coach Anne Morriss have written a piece arguing for more of several undervalued emotions at the office. Among them are anger and frustration. Entrepreneurs, they point out, know how valuable frustration is for coming up with business ideas.

They give the example of entrepreneur Paul English, who tapped into frustration over the time he was spending going from one airline website to another in trying to find the best flight. This resulted in him launching metasearch engine Kayak to do the job for him, and the rest of us.

Anger isn’t just good for potentially profitable businesses. It can also help you identify what’s important to you, or for dealing with lurking feelings of hurt or disappointment.

The Harvard couple writes: “Anger is often a secondary emotion, a mask for more complicated feelings such as disappointment or sadness.

“When we coach people through this one, that’s often the place we’ll start. What might be living underneath the anger? What can you learn from that emotion?”

Anger not only helps you push through obstacles, it also helps you sense which obstacles to prioritise.

Given our shouty world, I admit I hesitated before writing up this research. Ten minutes on Twitter (I mean X) or watching the news is enough to give me the distinct impression that there’s already more than enough anger in the world.

However, that’s anger at other people, which, as the Harvard coaches suggest, often serves to cover up disappointment, fear and injured pride.

Please hear me when I say no-one thinks we need to yell at people more to fix the world’s problems, but it just might help to get well and truly angry at the problems themselves.

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Toxic anger is an issue, but so is toxic positivity. The sense we all have to be polite and reasonable when the world is quite clearly on fire is another form of toxicity. Problems big enough to enrage even the saintliest among us are not in short supply.

Rather than screaming at each other or plastering on a fake smile, we all might benefit from admitting our anger and letting it power our determination to finally fix our scariest problems.

*Jessica Stillman is a writer, editor and ghost writer whose regular Inc.com column is focused on making work life (and just life-life) more meaningful, joyful, and effective. She can be contacted at jessicastillman.com. This article first appeared at Inc.com.

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