Lead with Less Anger

Do you use an angry voice when a firm, even voice would do the job just as well?

I witness this most commonly in sports, where it seems to be accepted that coaches and trainers shout with anger at those they are training.  I'm not talking about raising the voice to be heard.  I mean shouting with angry inflections and body language, to convey authority and to motivate.  

Sports isn't the only place this happens.  Every parent and teacher - and I speak as a veteran of both roles - gets ticked off at the youngsters in our charge sometimes.   So do team leaders, managers, and supervisors of all sorts, leading people of all ages.   Frustration comes with the territory of leadership. 

Anger is a powerful tool.  If used sparingly it can serve good purposes.  Anger's intense energy says, "Listen up...!" and often people do.  Used only once in a while, anger gets attention and underscores a message.

But if you use it frequently, the positive effects of anger diminish.  Anger stresses people.  Eventually they tune out and turn inwards for relief from the bombardment.  Then you have to shout louder for the same effect.  

Worse, excess reliance on anger damages entire systems. Your emotional outbursts can easily and seriously damage self-confidence, morale, and trust in others.  It serves as a model and triggers similar responses in others around you. In places far from the scene of your drama, your behavior may help disrespectful treatment of others to become normal.  

Why You Need Anger

Before thinking about using less anger, it's good to appreciate why you also need anger.  Frequent appearance of anger in negotiation or leadership probabably reflects over-reliance on the Directing style of conflict response.  In the chart below, Directing is on the upper left - it involves a high focus on own goals (or task) and low focus on relationship.  In terms of that chart we would say that an angry person is focused on getting others to do what the angry person wants, not on the relationship or how people feel. 

That doesn't sound very nice.  But being nice cannot always be the goal.  If you can't use Directing effectively, you're going to let yourself and others down in a serious way. 

In order to protect youngsters from blundering into danger, for example, every parent, every teacher, every youth leader needs to say "No!" at times, urgently and emphatically. The focus in such moments is not the relationship, it's on protecting others or upholding principles, even when this causes angry feelings.

Certain roles require placing principle and duty higher than feelings and relationships at times.  You don't want the surgeon operating on you to negotiate with an assistant about procedures.  You want firm, competent control by an expert professional who brooks no nonsense in getting things done right.   Patch up bad feelings later!

Hone your skills in this style.  Life is likely to place you in leadership role from time to time even if you don't think of yourself as a leader type.  Well-directed anger can really amplify your power in this times.  

But don't make it a habit.  If you over-rely on anger, it will begin to have diminishing returns. Over time you will weaken the web of kindness and responsiveness that makes  partnerships and organizations healthy.

Four Strategies to Reduce Reliance on Anger

If you recognize you are over-using anger, try these strategies:  

1) Treat problems as information gaps rather than conflicts.  Big conflicts often arise from simple misunderstandings.  If managed as such from the beginning and dealt with in a calm, non-confrontational ways, many conflicts could be prevented.  The moment you bring anger into the picture things polarize and escalate.

This requires practice.  Old patterns will pull you back to previous behaviors.  These skills may help: 

  • Purpose statements.  When you make clear, non-confrontational statements of positive purpose, you make it easier for others to work with you rather than against you.  "I'm eager to get a good night's sleep - would you mind keeping the noise down?" is a Purpose Statement that lands with quite a different impact than an angy "Turn it down!" or "Do you have to be so loud?"  

    Similarly, when an expedition leader says, in a firm voice, "It's important that we stay together so nobody gets lost," it has a different impact than shouting "Stop lagging behind!"  To create purpose statements you have to think through your underlying purpose and figure out ways to communicate it in positive terms.   Until you get the hang of it, you will have to commit some time to preparing in advance for difficult moments. 
  • Clarifying questions help you interact with others in ways that invite and assist them to clarify their purpose and/or needs, without escalating an awkward moment into a conflict.  There's no catch-all formula for this, but consider these examples: "Sorry,  what's happening here is not what I was expecting.  Can you help me understand this?" "I'm afraid I don't understand what's happening - can you clarify please what you're trying to accomplish?" "Please say more about that, so I understand where you're coming from...."

2) Expand your repertoire of skills for deploying influence and power.  A common rationale for anger is that it is necessary to caution or block others from unacceptable behavior.   But it's not the only way to do that.   Thought and preparation can often position you with different responses that don't require any anger.  A few examples:

  • In mediation and group facilitation training, we teach mediators and facilitators to call out rude behavior kindly but firmly, and to do it early, as soon as it appears.  If facilitators wait until rude behavior has multiplied, confronting it kindly is harder, for the facilitator's own emotions have now increased.  
  • With my children, I learned that to achieve discipline without the spanking or yelling many parents rely on, I must lead by actively noticing and verbally appreciating good behavior as much as possible.  I must take care to back my words with actions, never giving an order or threatening consequences I am not prepared to enforce.  I must maintain on the tip of the tongue a series of clear and escalating responses to unacceptable behavior; my early responses must be small and simple enough that I don't hesitate to use them.   
  • Hospitals are surprisingly vulnerable to intense conflict. Hospital staff report violence-related injuries at rates far higher than other professions.  To cope, many hospitals now train staff in de-escalation skills.  One of these, in the words of one trainer is "calmly and firmly asserting the rules while acknowledging the other person’s humanity."  

In each example we see that there are ways to be influential and authoritative that don't depend on a turbocharge of anger.  This takes time, thought, reading or discussion, and experimentation but the results can be transformative.   

3) Use the Cooperating style of conflict resolution instead of Directing

In the language of conflict styles, the skills described above demonstrate using Cooperating as a response in situations in which you previously might have relied on Directing.      

Directing and Cooperating are similar in that they share high commitment to a task or goal.   In both styles we bring an agenda to engage with others.  We have a mission we feel is important to accomplish.  We are assertive.  This makes both Directing and Cooperating effective styles when we have a lot of work to get done, or a major responsibility we must fill.  

But Cooperating adds something not present in Directing: a relational focus.   We pay attention to feelings of others.  We send frequent signals that we value them and their goals. We back up these signals with actions.



There is however a key cost you must reckon with in using Cooperating:  settling on a solution takes longer and may demand more emotional energy than Directing.  Unlike in Directing, you're not just insisting on your own agenda, you're paying attention to others, their feelings and views. There will be back and forth and a period of uncertainty as you wrestle with finding solutions that keep everyone happy. 

It's not realistic for leaders to use Cooperating on every issue.  But as others see that you use Cooperating whenever possible, they will be more accepting of those occasions when realities of time, budget, or other limitations require you to use Directing.

4) Circle back later, after moments when you have voiced your wrath, and take steps to signal care for the relationship.  If you were over the top, why not acknowledge it?   Even if the anger was appropriate, you can still signal care without compromising your principles by extending a gesture of warmth or appreciation.   

People who overuse anger tend to under-estimate the damage their anger inflicts on relationships.   Deploying anger has become so much a part of how they interact that they don't see it as unusual or problematic.   

Others can indeed cope with surprising amounts of anger if the over-user regularly takes responsibility to renew the relationship afterwards.  Just make sure it happens.  Chronic failure to do such tidy up is deeply damaging to depth and trust.  



The Style Matters conflict style inventory helps groups and teams engage in thoughtful discussion about their dynamics.  Check out this infographic on two easy ways to invite users to take the inventory.