Real Leaders

How to Turn Anger into an Opportunity

All of us are emotional… thank heaven. Emotional energy motivates us to do great things. Emotion is the horsepower of sacrifice, dedication, innovation and love. Your emotions are nothing to be afraid of… not as long as they are harnessed and directed towards your deeper values that form the guardrails of your actions.

But what about bad emotions? For instance, for centuries angry emotions have had a bad reputation because irrational, fear-based behaviors often override our impulse control and make us do or say really crazy stuff. But recently social science started to turn its research eyes onto the “upside of negative emotions.” Let me explain. Anger is almost universally condemned as a very negative emotion. Virtually nothing wise is ever said or done when we are angry.

That seems true, doesn’t it? It’s certainly seems that way in my own life. For instance, I don’t believe I said anything I didn’t honestly regret whenever I have yelled. Yelling just makes me stupid. So, I think it’s true, unrestrained anger enables us to justify doing things we most often later regret. It is easy to just label anger as a “bad” emotion.

And yet… Consider this. Psychologists have concluded that our personal anger results most often when we feel undervalued. When we feel unappreciated, when our efforts seem invisible, when our ideas are ignored, when our interests are overridden, when our time is wasted, when our rights are violated… well, frankly it just pisses us off. And there’s another thing that makes us angry that isn’t so obvious.  There seems to be a deep longing in almost all of us to be respected. 

We want to be viewed as capable. This is at the root of our feelings of self -respect. So when people try to do things for us that we can do for ourselves we begin to resent them. If we sense at all that people are helping us because they think we are incapable of helping ourselves it makes us mad. The common expression is “biting the hand that feeds you.” Logically it doesn’t make a lot of sense to strike out at anyone being nice to us. 

Why would you be angry at someone who’s just trying to help?  The answer is we experience their help as an insult about our own capabilities.  This is the common type of war we have with our teenage children.  The way they know they’re capable is by cleaning up their own messes. They feel their own strength by taking responsibility for the consequences of their actions. So when parents keep bailing out their children from the natural results of bad decisions it makes them mad.

This is true whenever they ask for help they know they don’t deserve. This is not just true with our children but also with spouses, friends and co-workers. Nevertheless, when people get angry at us for our over-helping we throw up our hands and mutter to ourselves that they just don’t appreciate us.  If we don’t stop the anger cycle of mutual under–appreciation we become estranged.

Now that you know what the primary cause of anger is in ourselves and how we might trigger it in others let me give you a strategy to make the emotional energy of anger a positive force in your life rather than a destructive one. Anger is our inner alarm that we are being exploited. When we feel undervalued our anger can power up our proactive energy. We see this clearly in the efforts to extend human rights. Anger was a big catalyst in generating public demand that we extend civil rights to all. Anger also generates energy to get people to volunteer to support political candidates who promise to defend us from being undervalued by other politicians.

Clearly anger generated from feeling outraged about injustice can be hugely positive if channeled toward demanding positive change. And what’s true for societal issues of injustice can also be true for personal ones. For instance, I see a lot of resentment and anger in our modern workplaces.  In most businesses employees frequently feel undervalued. Surprisingly this doesn’t mean that they feel underpaid as much as it means that their expertise and ideas are so routinely ignored.  

In most organizations rework is constantly necessary because the people doing the work never get a chance to collaborate with the people who decide what work should be done. As you know, I frequently do leadership development for women leaders and managers.  What I find are often almost toxic levels of frustrated women because women in business are so frequently ignored or marginalized. Then male leaders wonder why all the women seem so “touchy.” The frequent male response is to “walk on eggshells” by being overly careful not to set off any of the women which leads to the women feeling even more undervalued.

So what should you do if you feel angry?  The research says that when you have a personal self-vision–which is simply a clear goal for your work and your life–and you have standards of what behavior and circumstances you will tolerate you can turn your anger into confidence, optimism and initiative to drive change. In other words, if you are really clear on what you DO WANT rather than just angry about enduring what you don’t want, angry energy can become creative energy. That kind of angry energy will sustain your consistent efforts to change your circumstances.

So here’s today’s bottom line. If someone is angry with you consider whether or not you are making them feel undervalued. You may be ignoring your needs or you may be doing something for them they should be doing for themselves. If you are angry it is probably because you feel undervalued. That means it’s time to be proactive. Get clear on what you want. Take responsibility. Be realistic. We judge ourselves by our intentions while others judge us by our behavior.

You may need to improve to get the respect and opportunities you desire. It’s not enough to be a good person…we also need to be effective. Learn what you need to learn and do what you need to do to receive the value you deserve. Deserve respect, ask for respect, and expect it. Don’t stay angry…create your future.

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