On Anger: Techniques for Managing Emotions at Work

I run, I do yoga, I reflect, I write and sometimes I get angry.

As leaders, how we manage our anger and other emotions is vital. Everyone is watching, and if we don’t handle our anger well we can make a tough situation even more difficult.

“Anyone can be angry, that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose and in the right way this is not easy.”
~ Aristotle

I’ve gotten better at this over the years, but when I’m in a values clash, or if someone isn’t straight with me I get ticked off. I don’t always love how I react on the inside or the outside.

In his work on Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman writes,
Anger is the most seductive of the negative emotions; the self-righteous inner monologue that propels it fills the mind with the most convincing arguments for venting rage. Unlike sadness, anger is energizing, even exhilarating.

Intervene Early in the Anger Cycle

Goleman talks about intervening early in the anger cycle, to challenge the thoughts and assumptions at the source of the anger. This is similar to the approach recommended by the Arbinger Institute in their work around “Self-Deception”. Both approaches focus on truly considering the emotions and values of the other person. Reframing the issues and changing perspective help to organize a more productive response.

While anger breeds more negativity as we subconsciously look for ways to justify our negative emotions; reframing diffuses the intensity and makes room for more logical approaches.

Consider Meditation and Other Mindfulness Techniques

In his book, The Mindful Leader, Michael Carroll recommends mindfulness practices and meditation as a way to get better insights and mastery of our emotions.
Emotions are like unruly but beautiful creatures that we work hard to tame. We want our emotions to behave themselves, but they are not always predictable. Some emotions seem very powerful and threatening, so we have them caged for fear that they will escape, and make us do all kinds of things that we might regret. On occasion, an emotion may break out and frighten others or we may let one out of its cage to prance around and have a little naughty fun, but generally, we work hard to keep them under lock and key. Other emotions we domesticate, and they behave like circus monkeys– entertaining us and keeping us distracted and happy.
Meditation helps us to sit with these emotions and handle then more objectively.

Of course, the techniques that will work best, are the ones we will actually use. As leaders, it is vital that we acknowledge how we handle our emotions and find productive way to manage those feelings productively.

The Most Important One: Tolstoy and Covey on Focus

One of my son’s favorite books is The Three Questions (Based on a Story by Leo Tolstoy).

The story takes a child-friendly adventure through Tolstoy’s famous questions:

Who is the most important one?

What is the right thing to do?

When is the best time to do things?

The main idea– give all of your attention to the present scene and players, and do everything you can to contribute.

The most important one, is the one you are with… and the right thing to do, is what he most needs…. and the best time to do it is now.

“The most necessary man is he with whom you are.”
~Leo Tolstoy

I have been struck by how much these questions resonate with Seb (age 6). When it is just the 2 of us playing or talking, he will stop the action and ask with a big smile, “who is the most important one?” Or, when he wants to do something fun he will remind me, “when is the best time to do things?”

People need undivided attention. They want to be listened to, and really heard. They need to know that they are the most important one– at least in that moment. This is at the core of my values as a leader, and at the same time, it is a constant struggle to put into practice. I don’t have this handled.

It is easy to think we are doing it all– that we’re handling the juggling act with grace, and that were giving folks what they need. There is so much that is urgent, and coming in through so many channels. I am constantly picking up the phone, while on a conference call, and have text messages beeping in. And yet, I try to convince myself that I am “listening” to all 4 conversations: the conference call, the new caller, the urgent texter, and the conflicted conversations in my brain. I am not fooling any of us.

If you are a newer leader who has not yet stumbled on the classic work of Stephen Covey, the great leadership writer, whose life we celebrate this week, I would start there. Covey’s First Things First, has some solid principles that still guide my work today, and is amongst my most frequently gifted books. I also find value in outside practices that help me to clear my brain and let me approach the tougher situations with a bit more clarity: prayer, yoga, and exercise seem to work for me. Many also find deep power in meditation.

Is the “most important one” always the one you are with? Of course not. Sometimes, you must switch gears. But, it is an awfully good place to start.

One Person at a Time

My favorite work as a leader is the time spent one on one, digging deep, helping to bring out the best in someone. The other fun part is motivating large teams toward a vision and strategy to get something important done. And then there is the in-between.

What I find most difficult as I have assumed larger roles with bigger teams is the strong desire to connect one on one, and the almost impossible task of getting to know everyone in a large organization to the depth that I would like. I do my best to be as fully present as I can in each encounter, but it can be tough to do this well. Intimacy is hard to scale.

One Person at a Time

This challenge hit me in the face this week.

Intimacy is hard to scale

I was talking to an extended member of my team who does important work in my organization hundreds of miles away and a few levels down the org chart. I had not seen him in about 6 months. He said to me, “Karin, I think about what you said to me every day.” Oh boy, I smiled and waited. It turns out that once he reminded me of the challenge I had given him, I recalled the entire conversation, including exactly where we had been standing at the time. However, if I had been really on my game, I would have had immediate recall and perhaps have even been the first to bring it up.

I was so pleased that the conversation had helped him, and so disappointed in myself for the lack of proactive follow-through.

Time Well Spent

As timing would have it, the next day I walked into my office to find the very large stack of books I had ordered to give away at an upcoming summit I was hosting for some of my team. My intention was to inscribe them with a personal messages for each team member. That seemed like a good idea weeks ago, but now with literal wildfires burning in the West, and other emergencies that were consuming my day, it seemed like a daunting task.

That evening, I dove in and was surprised to find that what had felt like a difficult time-consuming exercise turned into a calming and useful experience. Somehow, moving deliberately through the team, one person at a time thinking about each person very specifically and the gifts they were giving, felt magical to me. Time melted away in a peaceful meditation. I left that night feeling tremendous gratitude for the people in my organization and their contributions to the work and to one another. It also became obvious to me that I knew some folks much better than others, and had much work ahead of me to be an effective leader for them.

Can intimacy scale? Tough question. There are certainly ways to be completely present in our relationships even in a large team setting. And, of course ways to do better with follow-up. I also found value in thinking quietly about each person one at a time, and seeing what surfaces.

Would love your comments and ideas


Saturday Salutation: A Trail of Blessings

There is a man who walks slowly down the trolley path near my home each morning. I often see him on my morning run. He ritualistically tips his cane to everyone as he passes, and says, “God Bless You.” When he is not there, the crickets seem to sing more loudly. Perhaps they are filling in the void left by his absence.

Namaste.