Is There A Place For Anger In Management?

Paul Nolan

Anger has its benefits, writer Charles Duhigg states in a recent Atlantic cover story on the topic.

“We’re more likely to perceive people who express anger as competent, powerful and the kinds of leaders who will overcome challenges. Anger motivates us to undertake difficult tasks. We’re often more creative when we’re angry, because our outrage helps us see solutions we’ve overlooked,” he writes.

That’s well and good, but what about the people on the receiving end of anger? Can anger as a management style be anything but destructive? Duhigg cites a study from the 1970s by James Averill, a University of Massachusetts psychology professor, in which Averill surveyed the residents of Greenfield, Mass., (population 18,000) about their personal experiences with anger. Averill discovered that in the vast majority of cases, expressing anger resulted in all parties becoming more willing to listen, more inclined to speak honestly and more accommodating of each other’s complaints.

“Even the targets of those outbursts agreed that the shouting and recriminations had helped,” he writes. “They served as signals for the wrongdoers to listen more carefully and change their ways.”

More than two-thirds of those on the receiving end of Averill’s anger study said they came to realize their own faults. Averill wrote, “Their relationship with the angry person was reportedly strengthened more often than it was weakened, and the targets more often gained rather than lost respect for the angry person.”

Can anger motivate?

We tend to think of anger as a wild, negative emotion, but research beyond Averill’s study finds that anger also has its positive side. A report on PsyBlog, a collection of scientific research on how the mind works written by British psychologist Jeremy Dean, offers some upsides of anger that are associated with effective management. These include:

  • Anger is a motivating force. Research has shown that anger can make us push toward our goals in the face of problems and barriers. In one study, participants were shown objects they associated with a reward. Some, though, were first exposed to angry faces. Those shown the angry faces were more likely to want objects they were subsequently exposed to. When we see something as beneficial, we want it more when we’re angry, Dean states. So, when used right, constructive anger can make someone feel strong and powerful and help push them to get what they want.
  • Anger can benefit relationships. This supports Averill’s findings. Society tells us anger is dangerous and we should hide it, yet research shows that hiding anger in relationships can be detrimental. When you hide your anger, the other person doesn’t know they’ve done something wrong, and so they keep doing it. The expression of anger, if justifiable and aimed at finding a solution rather than just venting, can actually benefit and strengthen relationships.

Quartz, an online publication about the global economy, reports that a series of studies highlighted in Human Relations journal suggest that expressing anger in the workplace can actually lead to more people acknowledging a problem and getting it fixed. One study the authors highlighted found that negative emotional events in the workplace had a positive outcome 70 percent of the time.

In a study on individual settings, employees who were “agreeable” performed better in response to negative emotions than those who were not as agreeable. If you’re a nice person, you’re more likely to respond well to anger, the Quartz article surmises. In teams, the manager’s negative tone encouraged workers not to settle for less, and to delve into deeper problems.

“This doesn’t mean it’s bad to express positive feelings at work — those led to positive outcomes 94 percent of the time,” states the Quartz article. “It just means that a negative emotion doesn’t always lead to a negative outcome.”