Anger in Leadership

  • 8 mins read

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.

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