Daniel Robin & Associates
Making Workplaces Work Better
Leadership in Action Series
Part 10: Four Steps to Handling Aggressive Impulses
By Daniel Robin
This article series outlines a process for dealing with hostile or aggressive impulses in yourself and others while staying true to the good intentions they rode in on. See the prior two articles on this topic at ABetterWorkplace.com/leadership.html.
Some leaders get heavy-handed as a poor substitute for skillful assertiveness. Unaware of the consequences of their actions (yes, there are consequences), they barrel through projects as if it were a public bullfight where everybody else gets to be the bull. Result: angry and resentful, well, bulls – that is, people who are usually quite cooperative, now reduced to looking for a time when the thick-skinned “toreador” looks away, stumbles, forgets to cover their blind side (we all have one, and it isn’t necessarily our backside), or some other way to even the score.
Other leaders, when caught up in the “passion of the moment,” may know exactly how to assert what they want, but unwittingly let frustrations build up inside until what eventually does come across is rude, abrupt and borderline abusive.
Often the first scenario (not knowing how to skillfully address an issue) feeds into the second (frustrations that turn into aggressive or passive-aggressive behavior), and we end up with clumsy, emotional or abrasive outbursts. When leadership turns overly aggressive, using abrupt or hostile directives to get what’s wanted (or passively expecting others to mindread), the risks and downsides outweigh any potential rewards. It just isn’t worth it.
Here are four steps to dealing more skillfully with anger impulses. If it’s “habit anger” that’s running your show (that is, you’re angry most of the time), this process may still help, but also consider seeking outside, professional assistance. You can find several additional resources at ABetterWorkplace.com/anger.html.
Step 1. Notice
your most prevalent approach to anger and aggression, and do the opposite.
If your habit has been to express anger in the moment, try suppressing it for awhile; and if your habit is to suppress it, practice expressing it. If you’re not sure about your dominant style, see our website for a quick self-assessment at ABetterWorkplace.com/anger_eval.html.
For example, if you tend to not speak up (actively pushing aside or swallowing anger), then practice speaking plainly and directly in the moment. The next article will round out the toolset for dealing with sticky situations, such as the need to confront long-standing issues.
If you tend to “go off” immediately, realizing that adrenaline and a life-or-death sense of urgency fuel and perpetuate the “causal chain,” it may take a lot of will power (and courage) to allow yourself to interrupt the action. Calm yourself. Take a deep breath. Practice putting aside the impulse to act (a reaction). Notice it, and put it aside. Perhaps count to 10, then count again, more slowly – anything to slow down anger’s hormonal urge and chemical surge.
Step 2. Use the power of anger to heat your house. No. Just kidding. Just Notice It.
Once you’ve become familiar with using the opposite style, the next step is simply to notice the anger itself so you can, on occasion, choose to do NOTHING with it at all.
Neither express nor suppress. This is akin to simply being aware that there’s anger present and choosing to take no action whatsoever.
The key here, of course, is not to be overly identified (not to mistake or confuse who you are) with your feelings. You are not that. Feelings come and go like the tides. Think about something important, like a core value, and breathing … notice how quickly perspective returns.
And what does it feel
like to find a moment of peace within all the storming and performing … a
place, a moment, to be who you are, without needing to “do” anything?
Notice the Source.
By noticing the source of anger, you can powerfully assert what you want changed, rather than be aggressive about what has to change, giving away power.
Anger can mask pain or hurt, sadness, or fear … if there is something you want to avoid that the anger is trying to tell you, you’re likely to produce more of it! Filters are great for making our experiences more manageable in the moment. When you penetrate anger, it often delivers something of far greater value than acting on the original impulse. See if you can identify any surprising origins.
Note that analyzing strong feelings (and the chemical pathways that allow you to have them) can be disorienting, even confusing. Your gut is telling you something, so your self-talk needs to be about finding that cause, and nothing else. Do not try to talk yourself in to or out of the feeling; don’t accept secondary feelings of guilt, shame, or remorse, resentment or indignance; if anything, go to the center of the original feeling and tell yourself the truth about it.
Step 4. Decide How To Use It
Perhaps the question is either how to be “civilized” (cooperative) without being a push-over, or how to be clear and direct (perhaps even blunt) without causing damage. When you’re angry or agitated, is it even possible to be both compassionate and powerful, considerate of others and courageous at the same time? Decide what you’ll do to handle aggressive urges going forward.
Anger has a bad reputation, is often seen as a curse, something to get rid of. Suppressed anger can literally make you sick. Anger expressed irresponsibly or directed at a person unable to stand their ground can be devastating. So how do we turn this “curse” into leadership ability? By noticing its source and using that awareness to be assertive and cooperative, we get things done within a much healthier and happier workplace.
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