Thanks to the International Institute of Directors and Managers for the opportunity for Michelle to discuss personal and moral anger and how leaders can use that anger as a healthy emotion in the workplace.
When you think about emotions at work, anger isn’t likely to be an emotion that is characterised as positive and constructive for leaders. Instead, it’s seen as a ‘hot’ emotion that stimulates negative thoughts and actions. It’s likely you think about a colleague or Director who shouts, lashes out and is generally disagreeable, or a time when you felt annoyed or angry at someone’s behaviour towards you. However, anger isn’t one-dimensional. Sometimes, depending on context and circumstance and when used wisely, it can be helpful for leaders.
Researchers, Professor Geddes from Temple University and Professor Lindebaum from Grenoble Ecole de Management classify anger as either personal or moral. Personal anger arises when you assess a situation and determine that another person is responsible for wrongdoing that negatively impacts you. The anger arises because you perceive someone has treated you unjustly or unfairly, and your interests are harmed somehow. Connected with this anger is often the goal of righting the perceived wrong. Consequently, feelings of anger of this nature are self-focused.
Moral anger is also an emotion, but it arises when you assess that a moral or ethical standard of some type has been violated. However, the impact of that violation is on someone other than yourself. It is your concern for the impact that prompts you to seek to change the situation, often despite the personal risk it brings you. Anger of this nature goes beyond individual self-interest to be other-focused. Consequently, as American Social psychologist Professor Haidt eloquently argued, “Anger is perhaps the most underappreciated moral emotion” because when it operates as a moral emotion, it can provoke actions that are positive.
Examples at work
If someone cuts in front of you while driving to work and you get angry, that’s personal anger. You are directing your anger at the other driver. Likewise, if a colleague interrupts you during a conversation and you get angry at their behaviour at work, that’s personal anger.
In contrast, if you witness another leader mistreating a colleague or a team member, who has less power in the relationship, and you want to stand up for them, that’s moral anger. In the workplace, if you witness a colleague misappropriating company funds or mistreating clients and you want that situation rectified, that’s moral anger.
Assess the impact
Not only is the focus of the action different, but the outcomes are different too. An angry person can be less deliberate and careful when deciding. When you are angry, you are not well-placed to make rational and well-thought-out decisions.
When you hold a leadership position, being a rash and impulsive will lead to decision-making regret and reputational damage. Being angry also reduces perspective-taking, which means it is harder to see another person’s perspective, reducing your ability to negotiate outcomes successfully.
In contrast, standing up for others and speaking out when you see issues occurring which are morally questionable is essential. Taking such action requires courage, but it is these acts that help leaders create a thriving workplace.
As a leader, if you want to have a healthy, dynamic and thriving culture, you need an environment where people are encouraged to speak up and out. Having avenues where people can express their moral outrage can help organisations quickly detect issues that need addressing.
Know the difference
Next time you feel yourself getting angry at work, reflect and consider the following four questions.
What’s the source of the anger? It’s important to pinpoint the reason for your anger. Is the anger self-focused or other-focused? You want to know if the anger you are feeling is self-servicing or in service of others (for example, customers / clients or your team members). Is being angry about this situation healthy and helpful, or unhealthy and unhelpful? Challenge yourself to determine the true source of the anger and whether it is an appropriate emotion at this point.
Lastly, does the anger inspire you to take positive action or negative action? You want to ensure you act based on wise reason, not an emotional knee-jerk response. Feeling and holding on to anger consumes energy, so it’s critical to identify its impact on you and your team. You want to have healthy avenues in place to manage. For example, ways to manage stress, outlets for letting go of unhealthy anger, being equipped to diffuse it in yourself (and, at times, others), and knowing when to stand up and when to walk away. Whether you are experiencing personal or moral anger, don’t forget Buddha’s wise words – “Holding on to anger is like drinking poison, and expecting the other person to die”.