August 6, 2008

Anger at Work – What are the results?

I hope you got something from my last post on how anger happens. Knowing how to use emotions is critical to leadership success. In this post I am going to show the results of anger on work relationships using a few examples from my own experience. Here is what happens when anger is dismissed or minimized.

Relationships can suffer if the anger response is not appropriate. The feeling of anger helps you discern what happened and what got triggered. That is the beginning of the work of responding appropriately to the reality at hand. When we are not in touch with our anger, we obsess about that event or person, and it can eat us alive. Even worse, it can lead us to false assumptions and damaging conclusions.

For example, I worked with a business executive who felt frustrated with his boss. He did not think his boss was providing adequate information and direction and he seemed unavailable and distant. The executive felt isolated and frustrated. As we discussed it, his anger began to bubble up. In his mind, this boss didn’t care about him, was oblivious to the challenges he was facing and was more interested in working with his other direct reports. He was certain, in fact, that he was about to get canned. This leader was talking to recruiters and looking elsewhere, assuming his boss did not value him. After some time, he finally talked honestly with his boss and voiced his concerns. He asked his boss to clarify his expectations. He found that his boss valued his work tremendously. After that discussion, the leader requested they meet once a week for 30 minutes to go over current projects and to stay in better touch. His boss agreed and their relationship became more connected and productive. This executive learned that his boss did not place a high value on being in communication. This was not personal. He now manages their relationship and regularly speaks up for what he needs.

Teams lose trust when anger gets out of hand. In a popular business book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni espouses the idea that the foundation of effective teamwork is trust. In my 25 years of working with teams, I couldn’t agree more. He goes further to prove that the foundation for all trust is the team’s ability to address and resolve conflict. In organizations, “conflict” is code for ANGER.

I worked with one team several years ago that could not get through a meeting without raising their voices and calling each other names. They rarely made progress resolving their issues. Yet another team I worked with had very civilized and even friendly meetings. However, the CEO reported after one of our meetings that several leaders came to him privately to complain about their peers. The first team learned to air their difficulties, without attacking or blaming. The second team had the more challenging work of facing one another individually, eye to eye, and admitting the resentment that had been brewing. Peer to peer accountability is far more effective than asking the team leader to resolve it for you.

Gossip creates a toxic culture - gossip is easy. Confrontation takes courage. Most organizations struggle with people’s tendency to take the easy way out. We may justify it by saying we are only “venting”, yet gossip is deeply damaging to an organizational setting. It creates environments of deep mistrust and “us against them” scenarios.

This was the topic of conversation at a team retreat for an investment company. All agreed that gossip hurt them personally, was a waste of time and sapped their energy. As they explored their history, their gossip culture once led to the loss of a valuable leader. This now former manager often came across as harsh to those in the office. With clients, however, she was thought to be highly effective, knowledgeable and brought in much profit for the firm. Her co-workers and boss never effectively addressed her social insensitivity, and talked about this problem behind her back. The manager continued, unaware, and eventually her lack of self awareness derailed her with their clients. Honest feedback could have prevented that failure.

This team vowed to turn this around. Each agreed to support the commitment by stopping it the moment it was heard. One team member expressed their progress a few months later: “I was having lunch in the conference room with one of my co-workers. She started telling me about the negative way the receptionist handled a customer. I immediately stopped her and asked, ‘Are you talking to someone who can do something about this? If not, who do you need to talk to?” She reported that her peer immediately saw what was happening and promised to talk to the receptionist after lunch and ask her about the conversation in a proactive way. This team was on their way to telling the truth to one another and building a trusting and supportive environment.

I’ve share some experiences and examples with anger at work in this post. Next time, I’ll give you some ideas for dealing with anger.

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