First-class coach

Q: I've got quite a senior role but have been told I won't progress in the organisation because occasionally I get angry when I see people doing stupid things. Since I only do it when others are making mistakes, I don't see why I should be blamed. Is there an easy way of changing their minds?

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

A: As you may know, if you want to change the world, you have to start by changing yourself. So, the short answer to your question is: no. You will find it hard to convince others that your anger and how you express it are not detrimental to those on the receiving end, and therefore also to your career prospects.

A strong argument for modifying your behaviour relates to its impact on health - yours as well as that of the targets of your anger. While the adrenaline that triggered your outburst can temporarily produce a feeling of wellbeing in you, the longer-term effects can be negative. The stress that an angry outburst provokes can lead to the secretion of cortisol, a hormone that can impair the immune system, raise blood pressure, damage the memory and even cause early-onset Alzheimer's disease.

On a practical level, consider whether your anger actually improves performance and the individual stops making 'stupid' mistakes. Anger in you induces fear in the recipient, and we rarely make our best decisions when we're fearful. We may retaliate with equal force of words or submit in apparent compliance, but perhaps harbouring resentment that will surface later - with negative effects on motivation and performance.

So is it never right to be angry? Aristotle made an interesting observation about this: 'Anyone can be angry - that is easy. But to be angry with the right person to the right degree, at the right time, for the right reason, and in the right way - this is difficult'. In other words, it is not always inappropriate to feel anger, but there are better and worse ways of expressing it.

Before you can use your anger according to this Aristotelian ideal, you'll need to reach an understanding of why and how you become infuriated. First, what triggers your anger? You mention mistakes, but what type of errors particularly enrage you, and what lies behind the feelings they provoke in you? Intolerance of failure? Irritation that the fault will create work for you? An implication that you have failed to specify what was required or give enough guidance to an inexperienced colleague on how to avoid a potential pitfall? Do certain people trigger your outbursts and, if so, can you pinpoint the reason? Are there others you favour whom you'd excuse for a similar misdemeanour?

Now ask yourself if there are any other patterns to your anger - does the incidence correlate with periods of stress for you, times of day or week, or with when you're tired or have had an alcoholic drink? Try calibrating your anger - are you sometimes mildly irritated and at others totally incensed, or do you exhibit the same degree of outrage whatever the scale of the 'blunder'?

Finally, look at the outcome of the occasions when you've hit the roof. Did the employee stop making mistakes? Did they continue to have a productive working relationship with you, or have they become timid or sulky and passive- aggressive in their dealings with you?

If you've explored all these facets of your anger, you'll have made progress in understanding its sources and consequences, and ways in which you might minimise unwanted results. You'll also have clues as to how you might begin to use this emotion productively. Since anger is one of the eight basic emotions, it's undesirable - and, indeed, impossible - to repress it entirely.

An effective way of communicating your annoyance without the negative physical and mental repercussions is to use the 'assertive' framework. First, recognise that you're feeling annoyed, but don't vent yet. Then, speaking calmly, name the emotion and the degree to which you feel it (very angry/annoyed/disappointed etc); be specific about exactly what the person did that caused the feeling, and say (briefly) what the impact of their action has been.

Then pause to let your words sink in. You will feel much calmer, having given your emotion an outlet. You'll also have given the person who is the source of your negative feelings some data in a rational way. And because they are not in panic, they're more likely to absorb what you're saying and to avoid arousing your ire next time.

Miranda Kennett is an independent coach. If you have an issue you'd like her to cover, e-mail:

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