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Drive results with emotions. Yes, even anger

Emotions, including anger, can help you be a better leader, but only when you understand the source of those feelings, writes Scott Edinger.

7 min read



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What separates leaders who are inspiring and motivating from those who aren’t? The most powerful characteristic is the ability to use emotions effectively. That’s what the 360-degree feedback data from over 200,000 participants said about their leaders in my research with my co-authors for our book, The Inspiring Leader. In my work with executives since then, I’ve seen that the notion of using emotions effectively and creating an emotional connection with employees is easily misunderstood. Whenever I share that data, I highlight that this doesn’t mean excessive displays of emotion, oversharing or group therapy. It’s about connecting with people — individuals and groups — on something more than completing tasks. We aren’t robots.

Using emotions effectively doesn’t mean only the positive ones, either. It’s certainly easier and more popular to use the feelings we associate with positivity, like excitement, enthusiasm, gratitude, etc. These emotions are extremely valuable, but no one experiences only positive emotions. So, leaders can’t just fake it. Susan David’s research on toxic positivity has revealed how forcing a happy attitude can even negatively impact your health.

Being real or, as it’s popular to say, authentic means accessing the full range of your emotional experience. That will inevitably include some negative feelings. An inspiring leader will have the courage to use all of them to engage others, including using anger appropriately and professionally. Anger is always giving you essential information; leaders must pay attention to that information and channel it to help them achieve their objectives. 

Anger is often misused or overused

It’s not uncommon for leaders to express anger — quite the contrary. Too many leaders over-index on anger and develop a reputation for routinely being explosive, aggressive or intimidating. 

We’ve all seen anger inappropriately and unprofessionally expressed. The problem I’ve observed in leaders is that they spend too much time being angry and not enough time figuring out how to use that anger productively. The anger boils over at some point, and we see what we’d typically call bad or even toxic behavior. Instead of channeling it to drive change or galvanize an extra effort when needed, it pushes people away, intimidates them and can even cause distress, inevitably hurting performance. 

I worked with an executive that was known for having a hot temper. Receiving information about poor results or sub-par performance could trigger a fit of rage. But that created an even bigger problem as his team would shield him from bad news, sugarcoat problems and avoid addressing issues that required attention. In one case, the team adjusted quarterly forecast data upward to a more “acceptable” number, even though the more acceptable number was based more on hope than data. Of course, when the end of the quarter came, and the expectations were missed, the circumstances were much worse than had the issues been dealt with earlier. 

Use what’s behind your anger

As I’ve written for HBR and in my new book, The Growth Leader, it requires an inspiring leader to get strategic about anger. It can be tricky because anger is often the front to many other emotions, most notably fear, worry and anxiety. But it’s easier to get angry than to confront these more complex emotions that require vulnerability. If you want to use emotion to help you drive high level performance and engage others, you’ll need to address those deeper feelings first. Here are two questions that can help you do just that:

  • “Am I angry, or am I feeling something else?” There is almost always something else accompanying the anger or lurking behind it. For executives, it’s often a matter of fear. Fear that you won’t achieve a result and the consequences of failing. Fear that missing a target or failing to meet an objective will reflect poorly on you. Fear that it may cause you to lose money or prestige. Fear about how this will impact the future. “Stress” is the more common term used to describe these concerns. But they are all fears.
  • If you answer, “I’m just angry!” (and who hasn’t answered that way?!) try coming up with a couple of other options. Afraid? Distressed? Worried? About what? It’s too easy to say I’m just angry. Go further. Come on. You’ll need to confront this head-on to be a more effective business leader. What worry of yours is this tapping into for you? Find those answers, and you’ll find the source of the anger, and that’s what’s most powerful if you want to connect with others.

Strong leaders need to have the awareness and courage to understand their anger and consider how to best use it rather than simply expressing it in its raw form. In Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, this is sometimes described as “having your emotions” instead of your emotions “having you.” It’s a matter of control and being intentional. 

Express your anger productively

This is where the action is. Leadership is about getting results — the achievement of goals and positive, intentional changes in an organization. There isn’t much need for leadership to maintain the status quo. Getting those results requires leaders to inspire and motivate individuals, teams and entire companies. The key is figuring out how you can use your anger and other negative but natural emotions to aid you in doing so. How can you express yourself in a composed way to spur productive action or shift behavior in your employees for the better?

You can do a few things to apply your anger the right way.

  • Turn the anger in to urgency. After expressing your anger with your team, don’t storm out. Stay in the room while they work to complete the task and continue to share your thoughts — strong emotions can inject energy into a team whose productivity is lacking and unite them if you don’t let the emotion dissipate. 
  • Be direct in your disappointment. Don’t hide it, share what you feel they did wrong and in what ways. Then, bring them in to solve the problem with you instead of leaving them to fix the mistake alone. This kind of open and straightforward communication builds team cohesiveness and trust. 
  • When you’re frustrated, say so! Pause the workflow and tell them exactly why to refocus attention and motivate improvement. Let that clarity — and your reasoning — push them to complete an important project, meet a deadline or drive a critical result.

A leader’s ability and willingness to explain what is causing the anger typically make the difference in effective or ineffective expressions of anger and doing so while avoiding the traps of aggressiveness or irritability that intimidate and repel others. Remember, your goal is to use whatever is bothering you to increase engagement and commitment, establish urgency on a critical issue and solve problems together. If you can’t do that, you may be better off giving yourself more time or distance from the issue so you can strike while the iron is cool, or at least just warm instead of hot. 


Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.


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