Q: I sometimes blow my top at work, when things aren't done as they should be. I've always been like this, but the mood quickly passes and I'm calm again. But now one of my staff has complained to HR about my 'outbursts', claiming they're abusive, and I'm being threatened with an anger management course. I resent being told to change what's natural for me. Do I have to comply?
Miranda says: You're quite right on two counts: anger is one of the eight core emotions, and it's not good, physically or mentally, to bottle it up. If you do that, the eventual explosion when the cork bursts from the bottle is likely to be more violent than if you'd expressed your anger in the first place.
The trouble is that, though you feel better after your outburst, those on the receiving end usually don't. They experience another key natural emotion: fear. And they don't have the luxury of shouting back at you and using the adrenaline and cortisol you've caused to zoom around their bloodstreams to relieve their feelings.
While you have probably forgotten the words you used in anger, the threats and harsh criticism are landing on the objects of your fury and triggering the same receptors in their brains that register physical pain. The possible repercussions for them include incomprehension, loss of confidence; avoiding alerting you to important issues for fear of displays of anger, and building resentment that emerges as passive aggression. None of these responses seems likely to make your team more effective, so the net result of your display of anger may well be the opposite to the one you're after.
No wonder HR has suggested an anger management course. Do you have to go on it? No, not if you make serious efforts to change your behaviour. This will require three steps. First, stand back from recent incidents and see if there are any patterns to them. Do they tend to happen when you are particularly stressed, tired or, dare I mention it, hung over? Is there a time of day when they are more likely to occur? Is it a particular person that sets you off, or might your wrath be turned on anyone? And what is it they say or do that makes you see red? Do you feel threatened, criticised, frustrated?
Once you've unpacked these angry occasions, you will be in a better place to move to the next stage: deciding on modifications in your approach. Think about your options - can you remember a time when, in a provoking situation, you reacted differently and achieved a better result? Perhaps you felt calmer, waited several seconds before reacting and used more appropriate words to explain the cause of your anger and what would remedy it. Expressing your anger and its cause, rather than acting it out, will have a quite different impact on your team: they will understand not only that they have caused you that emotion but why. Instead of suppressing your anger, saying: 'I feel furious/frustrated/disappointed by what you just did' will help reduce the pressure you feel and clear the way for performance improvement in others.
The final stage involves telling your team (especially those who have witnessed your explosions) that you are making a concerted effort to control your temper, apologising to them for any distress you have caused and enlisting their help in avoiding similar situations. It may cost you some effort to acknowledge that your previous behaviour put you in the wrong, but this act will make a big difference to others.
In effect, these three steps are your personal version of an anger management course, though the professional version might allow more opportunity to delve into the psychology of your more extreme emotions. Very often, it's possible to trace the triggers for our feelings to our early years - to parents who expected perfection; to competitive siblings; to hypercritical teachers or even playground bullies. When something happens that reminds us, usually unconsciously, of these people or situations, the amygdala, the part of the brain that regulates whether we use our adrenaline for fight or flight, is fired up. This happens in a 240th of a second, far faster than the information reaches your frontal cortex, the area of the brain where logic and reasoning lie. This is why counting to 10 before you open your mouth is such a useful technique in beginning to get your feelings under control.
Miranda Kennett is an independent coach.
If you have a problem you'd like her to tackle, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.