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The Ineffective Angry Manager

Anger is not necessary in order to hold people accountable

“I CAN’T STAND IT anymore,” spouts the manager over the phone. “This employee has frustrated me time and time again, and I can’t take it anymore! I want to fire him!”

Firing someone is not something to be considered lightly. “How did it get to this point?” I ask.

Soon it becomes clear what has happened. An employee has been allowed for quite some time to persist in substandard performance or inappropriate behavior. The manager has said little or nothing … while privately steaming. Eventually, the pressure has become so great that she’s blown up, and now insists that only termination will do.

These emotional eruptions are unnecessary. They’re counterproductive, in fact. They are the result of a manager falling into the anger-discipline fallacy.

An analogy from parenting

What do I mean by the “anger-discipline fallacy”? The easiest way to illustrate it is to take a picture from the world of parenting. You have probably witnessed this scenario.

It’s time for dinner. Mom comes out of the front door and musically calls, “Johhhhhhny.” Johnny, busy playing with his friend next door, goes right on with his business. She calls again, with a sweet musical tone, “Johhhhhhhhhhny.” Johnny continues playing.

Mom calls again. No response. After a couple of more times, Johnny’s friend even says, “Hey, Johnny, don’t you hear your mom calling you?” He replies calmly, “I don’t need to go yet.”

Finally, Mom is exasperated. She yells in a raspy, non-musical voice, “JOHNNY!” Johnny immediately drops what he’s doing and trots home. He meets a frustrated mother at the door, red and shaking with anger. She lectures him for ten more minutes about coming when she calls. “DO YOU KNOW WHAT YOU ARE DOING TO ME? DO YOU KNOW YOU ARE MAKING A NERVOUS WRECK OUT OF ME?” Johnny is unconcerned. He’s heard this tirade many times before.

What has happened here? It’s simple. Mom has two voices. Johnny has learned that he doesn’t have to listen to her until he hears that second voice. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to her that she could train Johnny that she means what she says when she’s pleasant and happy. Johnny’s mother has demonstrated to him, probably over several years, that she doesn’t really mean what she says — or at least, that she isn’t prepared to do anything to back up what she says — until she is fighting mad. So he ignores her until she blows.

Managers continue the pattern

When Johnny gets his first job or two, he learns the same thing about bosses. Like Mom, they often don’t mean what they say — in the sense of backing it up with action — until they have been pushed to the point of anger. So Johnny learns he can do what he wants until the boss loses his temper. Only then will he respond and comply.

This common experience is why so many people in our society assume that anger and discipline always go together. They have come to expect that authority figures will not take corrective action unless they react emotionally with anger. They also naturally expect that when authority figures are acting “nice” and “friendly” they will not do anything to address performance or behavior that’s out of bounds.

Many leaders and managers need to take a look in the mirror and realize that they have trained their people to think this way. The anger-discipline connection has become cemented in their people’s expectations.

Warning signs

The anger-discipline fallacy leads to inconsistent and ineffective managing. How do you know if you have fallen into it? Here are some warning signs:

  • Associating discipline with anger

One of the signs is when you realize that, like Johnny’s mother, you have “two voices.”

A situation (e.g., an employee’s inappropriate behavior) and your reaction to that situation (your emotions and actions) are two separate things. It is possible to apply corrective discipline in a calm, controlled manner. As a matter of fact, you will do so more effectively if you are calm and rational. Strong anger clouds logical thinking and leads to errors in judgment.

If you must “work up a mad” to apply corrective action, do some personal examination and find out why. What’s keeping you from taking action in the early stages of the problem? As a manager you don’t need a “reason” to do the right thing, and emotions have nothing to do with it. Doing the right thing is reason enough.

  • Managing according to moods

When you’re happy and in a good mood, you are lenient and allow people to push beyond the boundaries. On the other hand, when you’re cranky or angry, you clamp down and enforce the rules.

Standards of behavior and performance should be as consistent as the sidelines of a football field. They stay right where they are, clear and objective, regardless of your moods. This allows people to predict with confidence what the rules and standards will be today, tomorrow, and beyond. People are more likely to accept and abide by them once they have figured out they aren’t going to change.

Consistent enforcement over time leads to fewer needs to enforce them. It makes life easier for everyone, including yourself.

  • Believing that being “nice” is a sign of weakness

This error naturally follows the erroneous belief that when you’re “happy” you can’t hold employees accountable. “I have to be a jerk,” some say, “or people will run all over me.”

I firmly challenge that. There are countless nice, friendly, and empathetic leaders and managers who have no problem holding people accountable and have led their teams and organizations to world-class performance.

Marks of strong leading & managing

A strong leader or manager:

  • Holds clear and sincere convictions regarding behavior and performance

  • Maintains and enforces those standards consistently with calm confidence

  • Knows that she or he is working with ordinary human beings, and does not get bent out of shape when their weaknesses or faults are exposed; but instead applies relentless, gentle pressure for quality work, constant improvement, and better teamwork toward goals

What about “justified” anger?

In any discussion of anger, people inevitably ask, “What about justified anger? How can I not get angry at some things?”

I am not suggesting we should never get angry. I’m not suggesting we become emotionless Vulcans. The capacity for anger is part of our makeup as humans. Sometimes, a failure to get angry would be a sign there is something wrong with us. Anger, I believe, is the natural and proper response to things that are objectively wrong, like injustice, dishonesty, or harm done to innocent people.

The positive purpose of anger is to propel us out of our chairs to confront wrongs and make things right. But beware: In my opinion, that is the only positive purpose of anger. Once anger has moved us to take action, we must act intelligently and under control.

Many scientific and psychological studies have demonstrated the negative effects of anger: How it turns off clear, rational thinking; how it causes effects on our bodies that are harmful if prolonged; and, particularly relevant for leaders and managers, how anger leads to errors of judgment. Laurence Peter said it well:

“Speak when you’re angry and you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret.”

Anger may come naturally to human beings, but leaders are called to rise above “what comes naturally.” It is our calling to set an example of maturity, rationality, and self-control. That’s when we’ll make decisions that are best and provide leadership to the people who are looking to us. Li

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