People Skills 101: Anger Management

(I wrote this article a few years ago, and I am amazed at how much it applies to current events–jl)

When we talk about management fundamentals, this can refer to managing other people, or it can refer to managing your own life. In either case, when you are talking about managing, you are really talking about managing emotions.

Managing at the emotional level is a broad topic, but today we are here to discuss one single emotion, and that is … anger.

Anger is of course a powerful emotion.  It is essential for one to manage it properly, otherwise one risks considerable loss of control.

The expression of anger is often rationalized—or even encouraged—because it is often seen as being a state of righteousness and moral superiority, not to mention a feeling of being deliciously powerful. Many people subscribe to this belief, but this is an illusion.

Anger does not exist by itself in some sort of vacuum. Anger is always a reaction to, and a symptom of, a sense of powerlessness. Understanding this opposite underpinning is key to managing anger.

Perhaps the best way to understand the dynamics of anger is to observe the formula of every “anger indulgence” movie.  In this terribly popular entertainment genre, there are always three main characters:

1) An all-powerful bad guy,

2) an average-Joe protagonist (who “wants no trouble”),  and

3) a helpless child-victim.

Invariably, the rotten-to-the-core bad guy seeks to harm the totally innocent helpless child. This nonstop bad-guy nastiness generally goes on for about 85 minutes, until your average-Joe protagonist is finally pushed past his patience limit.  In the last climactic five minutes of the movie, we get to vicariously enjoy some serious bad-guy smack-down vigilante justice.

Now if the bad guy was not all-evil-all-powerful, and the victim was not all-powerless, the whole exercise would appear somewhat odd. Anger is a specific reaction to a sense of powerlessness.  Without the sense of threatened vulnerability to justify it, anger does not even occur.

We can all relate to this story line because at some level, we all feel like an innocent victim sometimes.  Most of us tend to be far more aware of our own vulnerability and weaknesses than we are of those of other people. We also tend to see others as being far more powerful than they really are. Our anger response feels good, at least for a moment, and as a result, anger becomes a common part of our modern political discourse, as well as our entertainment, and is becoming more so.

Anger Management: the Machiavellian Flip Side 

While we usually speak of anger as something to be “managed,” i.e., controlled, there is just as much technique to be appreciated in the cultivation of it.  Inciting anger in others is a handy, if morally ambiguous, management tool. Putting people into a state of fearful outrage is a great way of keeping them off balance and encouraging confrontation among factions that might otherwise unite against you.  Many people incite anger to advance their cause. Like Iago, they will tell you stories of your vulnerability and/or trust being abused by their political opponent, making you fly into a rage where you can no longer think calmly and rationally.  It’s easy to get caught up in this kind of thing, so it is important to see these things as what they are, i.e., commonly used manipulative ploys.

If you have just been told of an extreme abuse of evil power and it makes you angry, always take a minute to think about it. It is tempting to indulge in the immediate easy fantasy of indignant righteousness. It is easy to automatically fly to a state of defending an innocent victim from extreme attack. But if you remain calm and objective, you will always be far more capable of coping effectively with the situation, even if the accusations are true– which they seldom are.

Anger Is a Symptom of Perceived Helplessness

If you believe that a state of anger is the only way you can feel empowered, then you face a nasty conundrum:  you have to increase your fear in order to achieve that greater anger. Amplifying your sense of powerlessness in order to make yourself feel empowered is somewhat contradictory. Anger promises power, but never really delivers. It’s a classic vicious cycle.

Since anger is a marker of a sense of powerlessness, this is a handy thing to know when dealing with an angry person. Instead of taking their anger at its face value, try to step back and see the underlying cause, i.e., the sense of powerlessness in them that is causing it, and address this problem at its root.  Look past the anger and see the innocent victim beneath.  Try to calm them by pointing out what power they do have.

The Illusory Power of Anger vs. the Real Power of Calm Reflection

Anger is not noble, nor is it evidence of moral superiority.  Anger is a state of trying to compensate for a perceived lack of power.  It functions as an escape from reality, much like alcohol.

No matter what the problem is, you are more powerful than you think.  Calm reflection and persistence are always more effective, both in solving any problem, and in drawing more supportive energy to you. -jl

(Originally published in AICPA Magazine.)

Photo Credit: javonbrown Flickr via Compfight cc

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