Anger in Leadership

Emotions are part of the human experience, and the high pressure of leadership often brings them out into the open. Most leaders are familiar with feelings of frustration, fear, disappointment, impatience or resentment at some point in their career. Amongst it all, one specific emotion can cause more damage than all the rest combined: anger.

Every leader has a different threshold of anger. It can build for a long time before it gets noticed, or it can grow suddenly and powerfully. Anger in leadership can range from total denial to unchecked and explosive eruption.

Some believe that anger is unavoidable, and it should be expected from everyone. This mindset welcomes anger, and considers it part of life. Others believe anger is to be avoided at all costs, especially by management. Either way, leaders need not be framed by anger. There are solutions to manage anger in leadership, minimize its affects and provide employees with the most positive and productive environment possible.

When Leaders Express Anger

Anger comes with a variety of issues and side effects, many of which lie below the surface and go undetected by the untrained leader. Concealing anger may seem feasible in the short term, but it cannot be hidden for long. Leaders reveal their anger through verbal language, body language, reasoning and decision making—or the lack thereof. Your employees will typically sense your anger before you verbally express it.

Leaders who consistently allow anger to be outwardly and openly displayed damage relationships. No one wants to be the brunt of anger, especially from a superior. A leader’s thoughtless anger can crush a person’s self-esteem and cause numerous emotional or psychological issues, which will detrimentally impact their ability to carry out their duties.

Although the nature of anger has changed little through countless generations, the rules of order in the workplace have. The old-school management philosophy favored leadership dominance and control. Anger and intimidation were techniques to wield power, and employee fear was regarded as a means of respecting that power.

Those days are long gone. People no longer put up with oppressive leadership. They require their company to allow them to succeed, enjoy what they do, and have a sense of growth and value in their work.

Much research has shown that the effectiveness of an operation critically depends on the satisfaction of its people. Additionally, a collaborative and rewarding environment is necessary to recruit and retain the best talent. Employees who don’t feel they are benefitting from their job will leave.

Yet leadership anger is still a pressing issue. Consistent anger causes people to deeply resent their leader. They will likely respond with their own version of anger, and like their leader, it may be delayed or immediate. Angry employees bring many debilitations to the organization. One of the most critical is a lack of trust for their leader. Their respect and loyalty are tossed in the waste basket.

With employee distrust comes many calamities: disengagement, apathy, a lack of incentive and poor performance. A leader’s anger generates a toxic culture that can only spiral downward. A leader with a reputation for consistent anger develops a bad reputation, not only internally, but out on the street. Career prospects for a leader prone to anger are short and painful. Fortunately, leaders can rectify anger issues and turn their culture around.

Recognize an Anger Problem

As with any personality issue, recognition is the most critical step toward dealing with it. As speaker and author Antonio Nerves describes in an article for Inc., leaders prone to anger need to realize that this is their tendency. The counsel of a trusted colleague or qualified executive coach may be needed to bring this issue to light. If an employee is brave enough to approach this subject with you, it will benefit you to listen to them.

Your response to the description of an anger issue is key. Leaders who deny their anger cannot be helped. They will continue their descent in an ever-worsening toxic culture. Since one of the key responsibilities of leadership is to enhance and compel the efforts of people, a leader who denies their anger tendencies is not fit to lead. Similarly, distrust of the pointed counsel from helpful resources impairs leadership ability.

A leader who agrees that they have an anger issue, as advised by trusted counsel, can travel down a variety of paths. Although agreeing to this assessment is important, the response and follow-up make the difference between resolution and perpetuation.

Agreeing to the issue, but conceding that it’s acceptable, is not a solution. This old-school mentality is flawed and drives the toxicity of the culture. A leader who believes anger is a legitimate way to get what they want is certain to fail.

Agreeing to the problem, but dismissing its seriousness, is also not a solution. Executive coaches can help reveal what is happening to the culture and the people because of the leader’s anger. Quantitative evidence of inefficiencies, turnover, lack of productivity, conflicts or costly mistakes are powerful testimonies to the seriousness of a leader’s anger.

A solution is possible only when a leader acknowledges the anger problem with a commitment to resolve it. Accepting the reality as described takes courage. The best leaders acknowledge weaknesses. They don’t hide from them or repress them in an attempt to protect their ego or reputation. They accept them, learn from them, and set up a system of accountability to work through them. Great leaders enhance their reputation by being dedicated and transparent in their decision to resolve their issues.

Make an earnest attempt to understand where your anger originates. Could it be a result of an insecurity, intolerance, perfectionism, control issue, pride or fear? Without delving into deep psychology, allow an executive coach to assess your personality to reveal a logical source. This allows your continued awareness to focus on an identified tendency and you can track your progress in defeating its influence. Troubles have significantly less impact if they are identified, understood and prevented.

Resolve Anger Effectively

Once an anger issue is recognized an approach to diffuse it can be created. A leader’s personality and emotional needs determine the best means to manage it. The key is not to ignore it or repress it: two methods many leaders have unfortunately been taught.

As with any disorder, which is generally defined as a challenging personality trait that causes difficulty, anger that is ignored grows worse. Ignoring the problem certainly makes for less work, at least for the short term, but this eventually creates problems more serious than the initial displays of anger.

Repressing anger also yields no resolution. Stuffing angry feelings can take two different tracks for the leader. It often creates an internal pressure that eventually needs to blow, sometimes physiologically. Heart and brain function are put under stress leading to possible heart attacks, panic attacks, high blood pressure, nervous breakdowns or fainting. Prolonged stress of this type takes its toll on life longevity. No leader would agree that any situation at work is worth this kind of risk to health.

Another effect of repressing anger is more subtle, but damaging nonetheless. Holding in anger is counter to natural emotional release. Over time, repression can cause fatigue, burnout, depression, even physical illness. Migraines, indigestion, susceptibility to colds and flu, loss of appetite and weight loss, and disorientation are potential side effects. Such deterioration is certainly not worth the attempt to repress anger and pretend things don’t bother you.

Genuine anger management is work. It takes a focused effort and continuous determination to break an anger habit. It helps to recognize that there is nothing wrong with anger. It is a normal emotion that everyone experiences in some way. Overcoming an anger issue is challenging when going it alone. Most leaders find the assistance and encouragement of a qualified executive coach invaluable.

Anger is best resolved by recognizing when it’s happening. A leader who can discern the onset of anger and step back to reflect on its presence has the best chance of dealing with it in a healthy way. Learn your trigger points. Being familiar with your emotional patterns can prepare you for the next time. It can help you apply the necessary filters to avoid getting upset. Training your mind to anticipate and disarm what once enflamed you is a powerful tool.

Awareness of an anger-instigating threat is also helpful in slowing your responses down. Learn to pause and assess your feelings, as BodeTree CEO Chris Meyers encourages in a Forbes article. Take a deep breath and use more of the logical, trouble-shooting part of your mind. Anger can be expressed calmly with great effect. Your message can still be delivered with firmness, but under control. This gains respect and trust.

Another successful approach comes from learning to substitute negative feelings with positive ones. This is not repression, but rather mastering control over negative feelings. Expert business coach Marshall Goldsmith summarizes this technique in a Harvard Business Review article. He encourages leaders to reject the negativity of anger, and not allow themselves to be defeated by this threat.

Make a choice to not let anger get the best of you. You can still be angry, but not let it get out of hand. Choosing to dismiss the anger leaves room for a more positive feeling to take its place.

The Need for Authentic Leadership

Companies can no longer be impersonal buildings where employees show up each day, carry out their duties and shut off their brains before going home each night. People aren’t satisfied with simply following procedures and checking boxes. They seek professional fulfillment through engagement, passion and long-term value.

The most successful leaders know that employees want a rewarding work life—an environment that cares for them, values their contributions and gives them a chance to grow. Research consistently confirms that organizational health directly depends on employee satisfaction. When people are unhappy, the company suffers in myriad ways; when employees thrive, the company flourishes. There seem to be no exceptions.

Employees follow leaders who engage and inspire them, relate to them and instill trust. Leaders must be authentic, avoiding deception, contradiction, hidden agendas and ulterior motives.

Leadership experts like Bill George, a senior fellow at Harvard Business School, have studied how authenticity impacts organizations—and how a lack of it destroys them. Old-school thinking of power-based management, which keeps employees controlled and compliant, has failed. Distant, deceptive and insincere leadership repels people, causing multiple dysfunctions. Only legitimate authenticity works.

Unfortunately, many leaders have yet to grasp what authenticity necessitates and consequently fail to implement it. While authenticity’s facets are broad, its general principles are relatively uncomplicated and well worth the effort to learn and practice.

Branding and leadership expert Anna Crowe outlines four of its key attributes in Get Real: The Power of Genuine Leadership, a Transparent Culture, and an Authentic You (Lioncrest Publishing, 2019):

  • Adaptability
  • Direct communication
  • Putting values into action
  • Leading with passion

Be Adaptable

Employees want their leaders to be reliable sources of guidance and support, able to handle an ever-evolving environment with a variety of inputs, viewpoints and choices. They need leaders to adapt to the diversity of their surroundings and, as Crowe puts it, adjust to people’s unique situations.

Being adaptable requires a confident and, ironically, consistent character. Adaptability doesn’t mean being fickle, constantly changing course or bending under pressure. It calls for sticking to principles and plans with consideration, reasonable flexibility and understanding. Being consistent in how you display these traits allows your people to count on you. They know what they’re getting and what to anticipate. Consistent adaptability provides comfort and support, two important ingredients of fulfillment.

Leaders should assess their personalities to gauge their flexibility. A stubborn, prideful spirit clearly isn’t geared for authenticity. A trusted colleague or qualified executive coach can help you objectively determine how adaptive you are. Coaches are trained to guide you through adaptability’s nuances and steer your personality toward this critical mindset.

An adaptable approach fosters trust in challenging times and allows you to be true to yourself. People will know where they stand with you. When leaders put on airs, hide their intentions or contradict themselves, authenticity and trust are compromised. Leaders who remain calm, collected, insightful, understanding and willing to try new ideas demonstrate the trust-building power of adaptability.

Adaptable leaders know how to build unity within their teams. They avoid power games, politics or favoritism. They understand how to pull people into a common effort, pick their battles, make appropriate exceptions, meet urgent needs and make effective changes when necessary. Leaders who maintain the status quo, rigidly cling to rules and fear new approaches show a lack of authenticity, causing employees to hold back their best.

Leaders also gain respect and trust when they adapt to others’ input. Most teams include people with diverse backgrounds, personalities and perspectives, which encourage a wide range of ideas and solutions. Authentically considering what people offer and appreciating their contributions affirm them and add to their sense of fulfillment.

Communicate Directly

Inauthentic communication is the best way to lose employees’ respect and trust. Dishonesty, mixed messages, inconsistency and unreliability are serious communication weaknesses. They’re noticed quickly and are impossible to hide.

Employees trust leaders who speak clearly and directly. Authentic communication cannot be muddled, confusing or timid. When leaders communicate with purpose, logic, intention and emphasis, people detect authenticity. They trust leaders who cogently convey ideas and account for their audience, which maximizes connection. Speaking as directly as possible delivers the most trustworthy message. People think a leader who hedges or beats around the bush has something to hide and write off communication as inauthentic.

When leaders consistently communicate complete and timely information, people can rely on its authenticity. They know leaders are attempting to benefit everyone. When leaders hold back information for personal or political motives, employees usually discover the deception and develop distrust. Leaders solve communication problems when they recognize that people notice them and form opinions that are difficult to overturn. Seeing yourself from another person’s perspective will motivate you to enhance your approach.

Authentic communication is forged from honesty. Airs and pretenses must be cast aside. Leaders become transparent when they admit to being fallible or poorly informed on a specific topic. Such authenticity is attractive, especially when leaders ask for help. Admitting mistakes reveals a vulnerability that draws people’s admiration and appreciation. As Crowe points out, a leader’s mask severs the connections needed for collaboration and unity.

Leaders who hold themselves accountable to their people earn respect. Making commitments means you must deliver on them. If you’re open to feedback, willing to ask people about their needs, seek ideas for improvement and genuinely listen to feedback, you demonstrate authenticity. Taking action based on this input convinces people you’re authentically interested in their welfare and growth.

Put Your Values into Practice

Successful leaders know that key values set the direction of their organizations. They continuously come back to the fundamental principles that optimize human activity and fulfill their people. Values mean nothing to people unless they’re backed up with action, Crowe emphasizes.

People’s worth is the value most responsible for organizational success. Great leaders regard relationships as their organizations’ lifeblood. People work effectively only when they authentically relate to each other in a culture that promotes relationships. People-centered leaders purposefully relate to their colleagues, superiors and direct reports, thereby setting an example for their teams.

A relationship-oriented culture welcomes workplace diversity, recognizing the advantages of multicultural backgrounds and distinct abilities. Relational leaders put these differences to use, providing employee fulfillment by making sure everyone is included and valued. They respect people for who they are—not only for their technical skills, but for the relationships they cultivate.

Teamwork is critical to maintaining relationships and productivity. We accomplish more when working with blended resources. We are the sum of our parts. Teamwork-centered employees experience greater engagement and fulfillment. If you authentically promote teamwork, you’ll be surprised at the levels to which people can rise.

If you set high goals for your teams, be prepared to provide a commensurate level of assistance. Give of yourself, and clear the way for people to succeed. Demonstrate that you’re willing to sacrifice your own needs to further the team’s goals and accomplishments. Put your people’s needs ahead of self-interest. Employees will do almost anything to please leaders who go out of their way to help them succeed.

Professionalism is yet another value that sets the pace for your workforce. You can have fun and enjoy what you’re doing, but treat situations in mature and intentional ways. Your moral code should reflect authenticity and excellence. Banish negativity and inappropriate behavior, and exemplify a commitment to giving your best. Authentic leaders embody professionalism by walking the walk and not just talking the talk.

Make Passion Contagious

Employees who are passionate about their jobs find fulfillment. Great leaders seek ways to inspire passion in their people. Leaders who make genuine efforts to enhance their employees’ experiences are rewarded with a staff of motivated, productive achievers.

Conversely, inflicting a smothering system of red tape, indecisiveness and apathy kills employees’ interest and efficiency. People are more invested in their jobs if you offer them as much authority as they can manage. Empower your people to make decisions, take action and put ideas in motion. The less your people need to rely on you to make decisions, the more fulfilled they’ll become.

Challenge your people to accomplish what they didn’t think possible. Provide real opportunities that push them. People find passion when they’re free to be all they can be. Create a culture that aims high and demands excellence. Your people can raise the bar on their own endeavors, as you continue to reward their successes and offer positive feedback.

Of course, challenges carry opportunities for failure. Allow for mistakes when people are trying their best. Letting people fail can be positive if you continue to support them and send them back out there with new challenges. People need to learn from their mistakes and often find success in ways that wouldn’t be possible without having failed. A culture that forgives failure reduces fear and hesitancy, two significant roadblocks to fulfillment. Leaders who offer authentic encouragement and confidence boost their people’s passion.

Your most effective way to inspire passion is to live it. Passion cannot be forced or faked (too easy to detect). Leading authentically draws followers, so don’t be afraid to show vulnerability. Not everyone will agree with your visions and ideas. Every time you put yourself out there, you risk rejection or pushback. Confidence and determination help balance vulnerability (displaying strength through weakness, as Crowe puts it).

Authentic feelings, responses and behaviors engage people, affording you respect and trust. Trusting employees are more likely to be fulfilled.