In the words of 19th century American journalist and author Ambrose Bierce, “Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.”
I’d say that sums anger up rather perfectly. That is, it messes with your ability to reason, and so most things said in such a frame of mind will be things that – once you get your “rational” frame of mind back – you wish you had not said.
In business, controlling anger is not so easy. I have seen grown men and women have full-on tantrums. I have heard stories of business partnerships ending in the nastiest of ways. I have witnessed the most vile of language and insults. I have even heard of physical altercations taking place.
“Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.”
It is tough to say exactly what it is about the business world that can at times lead to such strong and, let’s face it, out-of-control emotions. Perhaps it is the fact that money is on the line; perhaps it is the egos; or perhaps it’s just the fact that it is, at its core, about survival (we work to earn to provide for ourselves and our families).
Whatever it is, as business owner or leader you in particular need to manage this emotion with extreme care. Your reputation is on the line, after all, and being known as “the hot head” is a great way to get others to not want to work with you. People simply feel uncomfortable in the presence of someone who might go off at any minute, and at the core, it is, for lack of a more elegant way of putting it, a rather mean way to go about things.
Now I am certainly not saying we must always hold our tongue when we get angry. However, what we must avoid is getting angry to the point where it clouds our judgement and may lead to outbursts that could affect others. Essentially, just as we need to hit the gym to keep our psychical health in check, so too do we need to work on the mental and emotional side of our health.
I’m sure we’re all well aware by now that regular exercise, yoga, and meditation can help us in this pursuit, but I am not going to touch on those today. Rather, I am looking to explore more psychological and cognitive approaches to keeping our emotions in check.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at four great ways the entrepreneur can spot, manage and ultimately harness those feelings of anger that come to us all from time to time.
1. Understand what’s behind your anger
There will always be times when our anger is justified. Sometimes things happen in business and in life that cause us to blow a fuse, particularly when we are under pressure to deliver. However, if you find yourself regularly getting agitated to the point of outbursts over just about everything, chances are there is a deeper problem behind why you are struggling to control your emotions.
Are you sure you are this angry about your computer crashing, or is it because you had an argument with a loved one last night? Is a rude client really that big of a deal, or is the problem that you’re not happy with a much bigger aspect of your life? It is actually very easy to entirely miss this “bigger thing”, which can be an issue that has been with you for a long time – and may be for much longer.
We can also frame this another way: It is difficult for many people to keep those bigger problems (which are, to be honest, just about always there in some form) from affecting everyday behaviour. And that can be a real problem. Because if you do not learn how to manage the negative emotions that are due to those bigger problems that truly are part of all of our lives, you will indeed be a very difficult person to be around.
2. Spot the warning signs
Just as important as understanding the reasons behind our anger, so too is the ability to spot when we’re about to lose our cool. While sometimes it may feel like anger comes out of nowhere in all of a split second, in actual fact there are likely to be several common warning signs that things are about to get heated.
As with any emotion, anger is simply a chemical response. It is our body’s way of reacting to a perceived slight or threat. Therefore, there are many tell-tale signs that this response is about to take hold: knotted stomach, fogging of thoughts, sweating, accelerated heart rate, tension in the muscles, and so on.
Once we spot these signs – and it is really very easy to do – it is important to take steps to remove ourselves, however briefly, from the situation that is causing us stress. Or, if that is not possible, make a concerted effort to face the feelings and try and get your rational mind back. Simply by acknowledging these early stages of anger we can ensure we remain “in the moment”, and with enough discipline we can make sure to not say or do anything which we may later regret.
Tell-tale signs that anger is about to get the better of you: knotted stomach, fogging of thoughts, sweating, accelerated heart rate, tension in the muscles.
3. Try cognitive restructuring
One particular way to take control of our emotions once we spot the early warning signs of anger is through a process called cognitive restructuring. In layman’s terms, cognitive restructuring means changing the way we think. When we are in a peak of anger, our thought process can become distorted and exaggerated. When we learn to spot the signs of anger, we can then make a conscience decision to change these thought patterns.
If you often find yourself thinking things like, “this never works” or “there’s nothing I can do to fix this” or “this is the worst thing I’ve ever seen”, immediately replace these thoughts with “it hasn’t worked this time” and “it may take a while but this is fixable” and “this isn’t what I was expecting but I can make it work”.
If you stop and think about it, this is very basic common sense. Your first round of thoughts are actually destructive and are not even in the least about attempting to find solutions. They are all about looking to assign blame. So from that perspective, they are entirely irrational, and by using cognitive restructuring you are attempting to bring the rational back. And that is what all good leaders must be able to do.
This technique is in fact hugely effective, and in time becomes less of an effort. You essentially train your brain to reach for more reasoned thoughts at the first signs of anger, and what you will notice over time is that those feelings of anger will, in many cases, stop coming up in the first place.
4. Express yourself
While for the most part we hope to avoid anger or control it to a good enough extent, it is important to realise that it is also just a natural part of life. Sometimes there are things that happen that quite rightly cause us to get frustrated. In these cases, there is nothing wrong with expressing this anger – provided it is done in a reasonable and controlled manner.
Essentially, this particular method is all about communication. There is a difference between venting your frustrations and waging war on all who cross your path simply because things didn’t go your way today. For example, should your ire be focused on a particular colleague who has filed work late for the umpteenth time this month, just because your anger is justified doesn’t mean you need to conduct yourself any way other than civil.
Simply explain your frustrations, while firmly (and even sternly) detailing why this is causing both you and the business a problem – no exaggeration, no personal slurs, and no hint of disrespect. Just with the cognitive restructuring, over time you will start to naturally react to feelings of anger in these types of situations with a very confident feeling of control. What’s more, how you express that anger will be much more results-oriented.
The importance of understanding our anger
A 2010 study on anger in the workplace published in The Harvard Business Review only served to highlight how powerful anger can be. Researchers at the University of Illinois studied the effects of this emotion on reason and decision-making by taking a group of test subjects and showing some of them an anger-inducing video (specifically of a boy being bullied). They then asked the whole group to make a decision on the innocence of a number of unrelated defendants in fictional negligence and injury cases. Those who had seen the video were far more punitive towards the defendants than those who had watched a neutral video.
In short, when we’re angry it is very very easy to take it out on those around us, and most of the time we don’t even realise we are doing it.
Whatever the reasons behind it, there’s no doubt that anger is an incredibly powerful emotion. If left unchecked it can easily cause us to take leave of our senses – as anyone who has ever broken something or fired off a personal insult in the heat of an argument can testify. Longer-term, anger has the potential to take a very heavy toll on our health, causing a litany of concerns including migraines, high blood pressure, insomnia, heart disease, anxiety, depression, and chronic stress.
Ultimately, the issue of anger is nicely addressed by the ancient Buddhist proverb: “You will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger.”
And when it comes to the business world, that “punishment” can be severe. Anger can rob the hard-working entrepreneur of opportunities, hamper judgement and lead to poor decisions that the more level-headed among us would steer well clear of. In essence, sure, experiencing anger is perfectly natural, but not dealing with it and letting it develop into something far worse is anything but.