Anger in Style

Anger in Style

The above stories—showing both inappropriate and appropriate uses of anger at work—make four basic points: (1) uncontrolled emotion disrupts the workplace and alienates employees; (2) employees have ways of getting back at bosses who berate them—ranging from whistleblower lawsuits to the Internet; (3) there is no place for profanity or similarly aggressive choices of words in recorded professional communications (recorded meaning e-mail, voice mail, interviews, meetings where minutes are taken, legal proceedings, letters, videotaped statements, etc.); and (4), despite all that, the well-considered, occasional, and purely tactical use of anger can pay off in a big way.

There are two other points about the use of anger that came out of my interviews and experiences with invincible executives. First, you need an anger style. Ranting and raving does not cut it anymore. For example, Janet Reno said that when she is angry at someone, "I lower my voice and I get more steady in my tone of voice." One of her former staffers confirmed to me that it is both intimidating and totally unnerving to have to stretch to hear her when she is mad. Everyone knows that "when she whispers, someone screwed up big time." She has developed a very effective anger style.

Former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson told me, "There is a way to tell a guy to go to hell in a way that he actually looks forward to the trip." You can get mad in a way that the person who is the subject of the anger actually thanks you for bringing the issue to his or her attention. A calm, firm tone of voice, combined with a well-organized exposition of the facts that got you mad, usually achieves the desired result.

Similarly, a federal judge told me in chambers one day that you know when he is mad because he "starts the sarcasm." He always mixes a dry, sarcastic humor in with his anger in order to defuse the situation. I once observed him tell an attorney that he did not want to hear oral argument on a particular motion because the point of law at issue had already been decided against that attorney. The attorney noticed up a hearing on the motion anyway. When the lawyer began to argue why the judge should grant the motion, the judge listened quietly for about thirty seconds. Then, out of the blue, the judge yelled the letter "D!" as loud as he could. The attorney arguing the motion, along with everyone else in the courtroom, stopped in his tracks. No one knew why the judge had just yelled out the letter "D." The judge smiled, but he said nothing else. After a few seconds of silence, the attorney resumed his passionate oral argument. Ten seconds passed and the judge yelled out the letter "E!" Silence again for a few seconds. The lawyer resumed his argument. About ten seconds later, the judge yelled out "N-I-E-D! Denied!" The whole courtroom cracked up hysterically. The judge looked at the lawyer, and said with a grin, "I told you not to raise that issue in my courtroom again. Next case." The gavel went down. Bang! There is an anger style.

Anger Parameters

The picture is getting clearer. Keep anger to a minimum. Make it a tactic rather than an emotion. Avoid profanity and public displays of anger. Develop an anger "style" that separates you from the ranters and ravers. And, finally, put outer parameters on your anger.

For example, never use anger arbitrarily. There are some well-known people who have gotten to the top of the heap by behaving so arbitrarily that people are scared to mess with them. History is in fact replete with them. It goes way back. For example, the Roman emperor Caligula had people executed almost at random. During the French Revolution, the Jacobins used the guillotine as an arbitrary weapon of terror. Joseph Stalin imposed order on the Soviet state in exactly that manner—the arbitrary exercise of power—purging even people loyal to him. These men got to the tops of their fields, right? Let's see now: Caligula was murdered. So were all of the Jacobin leaders. Stalin has gone down in history as the second worst leader ever, right behind Hitler—the true master of arbitrary anger.

Arbitrary action never wins in the long run—not for tyrants and dictators and not for modern-day executives. A few years ago, the business community was buzzing about the CEO of a major division of an aerospace company who was ousted by the board of directors while he was on a business trip to Europe. Stories emerged of the ousted CEO having called vice presidents into his office and berating or even firing them without notice. "He was the most arbitrary man I have ever encountered," one of his subordinates told me. "Eventually it caught up with him."

That is the final lesson about anger in the workplace: when you are angry, make sure that everyone understands why you are angry. While anger can be an effective professional tactic, anger devoid of reason never succeeds over the long haul.