Managing Your Anger: Change Your Behavior

Kendall L. Stewart, M.D.

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

Those leaders who fail to change their angry behavior persist in behaving badly for one reason—they get away with it. Human beings in general, and leaders in particular, don’t have much interest in behavioral change. It’s uncomfortable. And who wants to feel uncomfortable? After all, isn’t feeling comfortable the point of life? Leaders have another reassuring reason not to change. They are successful and powerful. Why should they change?

What is the case for doing it anyway?

Simply put, anger is unpleasant and deadly. Angry people die sooner, indulge in unhealthy habits more often and are more miserable. Chronically angry people are at increased risk for a long list of nasty diseases. To make matters even worse, they hang around with other angry people. No one else is available. If you choose to be chronically angry and miserable, joyful people will avoid you like the plague.

How can you do it?

  1. Admit the need to change. This step is easy, simple, quick and painless. It is the only step that is. But it is critical. If you are not convinced you must change, you will never commit.
  2. Specify the specific behavioral pattern you intend to change. Don’t be silly. You are not going to change your entire personality. Thankfully, that’s not necessary. But you can change one or two of your recurring maladaptive behaviors if you put your mind to it over several years.
  3. Make a public commitment. You don’t have to post this on Facebook, but you should tell the most important people in your life, those who will provide the support you will need and then hold you accountable when you backslide. And you will.

What angry behaviors have you changed and how did you do it?

Managing Your Anger: Manage the Intensity of Your Feelings

Kendall L. Stewart, M.D.

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

When questioned closely, angry leaders will readily admit that their anger differs in intensity on a continuum from mild annoyance to murderous rage. But they will have never given that idea much thought. Here’s why. Once they begin allowing themselves to have temper tantrums in the workplace, all of their outbursts move to the right on this scale. This is because once a leader starts behaving like a spoiled child, he behaves the same or a little worse every time in response to even less significant frustrations. He feels no need to show restraint. Any perceived slight or annoyance triggers the full response. Otherwise, the offender might not realize how important the leader is. It’s hard to take such nonsense seriously, but this kind of thinking is endemic among insecure leaders.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

Be realistic. If you have been throwing temper tantrums for years, you are not going to turn yourself into a mature, reflective leader overnight. But you can start by dialing back the intensity of your reactions. When you realize that your responses to frustrations need not be all-or-nothing, you have just given yourself options you did not realize you had. Successfully modifying your beliefs, thoughts, feelings and behaviors works the same way as any other significant change. Small steps.

How can you do it?

  1. Embrace the logic of this approach. Managing your anger is a mind game. If you are reading this blog, you have already admitted that you or someone you care about has a problem. And you are looking for a roadmap. You have found it.
  2. Admit that you are responsible for your behavior. If you continue to blame your behavior on others, you will not take the next step and then the next. And let’s not overlook the biggest copout of all; many successful leaders throw temper fits all the time. Of course they do. If that is the kind of leader you aspire to be, you are reading the wrong blog.
  3. Admit that you have the power to change. If you keep using your upbringing, your genetics or the latest psychiatric fad as an excuse for continuing to misbehave, you are giving up on yourself. Remember, the conviction that one is helpless is one of the core beliefs at the heart of the problem with anger. I said it was a core belief. I did not say it was true.

What strategies have you found helpful in decreasing the intensity of your angry feelings?

Managing Your Anger: Modify Your Perceptions

Kendall L. Stewart, M.D.

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

Like everyone, leaders’ beliefs, perceptions, feelings and behaviors are tightly integrated. Each strongly influences the others. That means that the leader with an anger problem must look beyond her anger to modify the other critical factors that are always present during a rage attack. Some thought or cluster of thoughts is always part of the anger cascade. The thoughts, or perceptions, that triggered the anger are often forgotten in the heat of the moment. And those perceptions are usually mistaken, selfish or small minded, opinions that no leader would be eager to admit to herself or others. This is why angry leaders rarely look into their motivations. They are afraid of what they will find.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

If you are not willing to identify and take full responsibility for the perceptions that played a key role in your temper tantrum, you will never make much headway in dealing with your anger problem. If you are open to facing up to the selfishness you will find, you can—with effort and practice—replace your selfish thoughts and perceptions with selfless ones. Those are the thoughts that servant leaders think. Servant leaders rarely become angry and almost never lose their tempers.

How can you do it?

  1. Be honest with yourself. Identify the thoughts that went through your head just before you erupted. Yes, you will have to face some unflattering aspects of yourself—your self-centeredness and your self-righteousness to name two.
  2. Ask yourself what a less selfish leader would think under the same circumstances. If you are too self-absorbed to figure this out on your own, ask a servant leader colleague how she might have reacted in a similar situation.
  3. Replace your flawed thoughts with more neutral perceptions. Then, replay the entire scene in your mind to see how much differently a less selfish leader would have reacted. When the next opportunity to become angry occurs, replace your distorted perceptions with more accurate ones. When you do, you will not become as angry. You may not become angry at all. This sounds simple, right? It is simple but not easy. But it works.

How have you identified and modified the thoughts and perceptions that contribute to your anger?

Managing Your Anger: Identify Your Core Beliefs about Yourself

Kendall L. Stewart, M.D.

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

Human feelings, including anger, are complicated. They appear to arise from certain core beliefs or convictions people hold about themselves. However these core beliefs arise, they are hard to recognize because they have been buried under layers of psychological defenses, feelings and thoughts. And they have been reinforced countless times by behaviors that buttress them. The big three core beliefs that give rise to anger are, “I am helpless, I am hopeless,” or “I am worthless.” Predictably, angry people are strongly disinclined to admit this. Just suggest such a possibility and watch how angry they become.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

If your deepest convictions about yourself are the origins of how you feel, think and behave, their importance is obvious—if you want to change how you think, feel and behave. If anger is a problem in your life and you intend to diminish the power it wields over you, identifying its source deserves your sustained attention.

How can you do it?

  1. Accept the premise that your anger comes from within you. It’s not in the water or the food or the air. Are you going to keep on insisting that your anger is not your problem? Are you going to continue to permit it to hold you hostage?
  2. Work backwards. In the moments before your last angry outburst, you experienced certain thoughts and feelings. What were they? These are not easy to recall because they were quickly incinerated by your blind rage.
  3. Get some help. Most leaders with an anger problem cannot figure this complicated stuff out by themselves. Most leaders with an anger problem don’t believe they have a problem. This, naturally, makes figuring out the problem even harder.

What core beliefs give rise to your anger? How did you acquire that insight?

Managing Your Anger: Reflect

Kendall L. Stewart, M.D.

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

Anger discourages reflection. It is an instinctual reaction that feeds on itself, is impervious to reason and entirely self-serving. When the leader’s passion has finally ebbed, the last thing that leader is inclined to do is reflect. What the typical leader wants to do is rationalize and put the whole humiliating episode behind her as quickly as possible. The flawed leader’s need for suppression is the final instinctive step in the destructive rage cascade.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

If you are not willing to reflect on how and why you reacted the way you did, you cannot hope to improve. If you conclude that you were justified in becoming angry and behaving poorly, you are deciding to become just another mediocre leader. You can look forward to a career that will be much less successful and satisfying than it might have been. If you are willing to reflect and learn and change, you can improve as a leader and lead a less stressful life. But you will have to invest some serious time and energy.

How can you do it?

  1. Identify the trigger. Write down exactly what happened, who said and did what. Describe the emotional context and contributing factors including your fatigue, preoccupations or distractions.
  2. Clarify the core beliefs that triggered your thoughts, feelings and reactions. This may take a good bit of work. Most such foundational beliefs are only partially conscious.
  3. Identify what you were thinking and exactly how you felt. Our beliefs, thoughts, feelings and behaviors are tightly integrated, and we can change all of them to some degree. This realization is not widely appreciated, and the effort required is more than most leaders are willing to invest.

How have you reflected on and learned from your decision to become angry?

Managing Your Anger: Admit that Angry Behavior is a Leadership Failure

Kendall L. Stewart, M.D.

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

When leaders permit themselves to become angry, their anger strongly compels them to act in misguided ways. They are inclined to say and do things they would not otherwise do. But having once surrendered to their angry impulses, they then focus their remaining mental energy on defending their actions. This is to be expected. Admitting that their angry behavior was an example of leadership failure goes against the grain. The failure is embarrassing enough; admitting their weakness is more than most weak leaders can muster.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

When you speak or act based on your rage, everyone but you knows you have failed as a leader. When you attempt to justify your behavior, you only dig the hole deeper. The sooner you admit what is obvious to everyone else, the sooner you can regain some of the credibility you have lost. But mere apologies are not enough. Those you hope to lead must see that you have learned from your failure to manage your anger and that you mean to do better.

How can you do it?

  1. Admit the obvious. You allowed yourself to become angry. You gave into your angry impulses and behaved badly. Do this as soon as possible.
  2. Apologize sincerely. Admit that if people don’t see you follow through with a genuine effort to behave more maturely in the future, they will come to view your confessions as just another ploy for letting yourself off the hook.
  3. Resist the temptation to defend your actions. Instead, carefully explain how a more mature leader would have responded in the same circumstance. Ask your colleagues to hold you accountable if you fall into a similar emotional rut in the future.

How have you persuaded your colleagues that enraged behavior is a leadership failure?

Managing Your Anger: View Anger as a Leadership Flaw

Kendall L. Stewart, M.D.

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

People feel entitled to their anger, leaders particularly so. Leaders have watched their superiors and mentors throw temper tantrums in the workplace when things haven’t gone their way, and they have seen them get away with it. Perversely, bosses are often lionized for behaving badly because of the mistaken notion that expressed anger is an effective tool for motivating one’s underlings.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

You know better than that. You remember how it felt when you were victimized by your leader’s temper. You probably told yourself at the time that if you ever became a leader you would not behave that way. You understand that people produce their best results in an atmosphere of mutual respect, fairness and emotional predictability. You cannot sustain a culture of teamwork and high expectations if you allow your anger to highjack your judgment and behavior.

How can you do it?

  1. Admit it. Make it clear to everyone that raw anger is never helpful in the workplace. Admit that you are human and that you may become angry now and then, but emphasize that you, no one else, will be at fault. Ask for others’ tolerance and understanding of your leadership failure.
  2. Instead of apologizing, change. Allowing yourself to become angry on a regular basis and then begging forgiveness won’t work. You have observed many leaders who think that repeated apologies wipe the slate clean. People see this ploy for exactly what it is—a way to avoid taking responsibility for one’s behavior.
  3. Confront anger immediately whenever it erupts. Expose it as the emotional weakness it is. Create and preserve an anger-free zone in your workplace.

How have you reframed anger as a leadership flaw?

Managing Your Anger: Take Personal Responsibility for Your Anger

Kendall L. Stewart, M.D.

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

“He (or she) made me angry.” Some variation of this statement in which someone else is to blame for the way the leader has chosen to feel or react is probably used as an excuse in every workplace in the world every day. Those leaders who fall into this trap not only do not see their mistaken conclusion, they also give the problem and its solution to someone else. They make this mistake because they have watched other leaders do it and they have imitated those leadership failures so frequently that they never considered the flawed logic involved.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

If your anger is not your problem, you can’t fix it. You have made yourself a pawn instead of player. If someone in your work environment can “make” you angry at their whim, they are leading and you are following. Most angry leaders have never considered this. When they do, it is usually an “ah ha” leadership moment.

How can you do it?

  1. Take public responsibility for your anger. Tell everyone you know that you have recently acquired a stunning leadership insight from reading the SOMC Leadership Blog.
  2. Explain why this is true. Most people don’t get this. Even when you explain it, most of your colleagues will continue to blame others for the way they feel. But the point is to convince you, not them.
  3. Write it down. “My anger is my problem.” Post this simple truth in a conspicuous spot where you and others will see it every day. Insight is not the same as behavioral change, but it is an important first step.

How have you taken personal responsibility for your anger?

Managing Your Anger: Recognize Your Anger

Kendall L. Stewart, M.D.

Why are leaders hesitant to do this?

When leaders are confronted about their anger, their most common response is, “I’m not angry.” This dismissive conviction is usually pronounced in an angry tone. Listeners are both amused and dumbfounded. How could a smart person be so clueless? Any instinctual response when indulged in regularly becomes normal. Emotional habits are habits just the same. And leaders who feel they have every right to become angry when they are thwarted or annoyed don’t view their anger as anything abnormal. Not seeing the problem is their problem.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

You cannot manage what you do not recognize. As a leader, you have hopefully matured to the point that you realize you still have some shortcomings you have not yet recognized. Reflect on whether you have redefined anger as so extreme an emotional state that you seldom if ever reach that level of arousal. This realization will help you see that becoming annoyed, irritated or aggravated are just anger in its milder forms.

How can you do it?

  1. Assume you have a problem with anger. Anger is one of the universal human emotions. You may become angry less often or less intensely angry when you do, but the odds that you never become angry are pretty slim. It is more likely that you just don’t realize you are angry when you are.
  2. Ask your colleagues to inform you when you appear to be angry. While it’s true that their perceptions may be inaccurate, their perceptions are their reality. Your colleagues are almost always better judges of how you are coming across to others than you are.
  3. Pay attention to your physiological arousal. Watch for your breathing to increase and your heart to start racing.
  4. Note your mental arousal. You may feel the need to interrupt, raise your voice or talk over others. You may find your thoughts racing or realize you are repeating your point needlessly.

How have you learned to recognize your own anger?

Managing Your Anger: Introduction

Kendall L. Stewart, M.D.

Leaders recognize that anger is a problem in the workplace. They recognize that it makes others uncomfortable, distorts perceptions, and triggers impulsive behavior. Anger decreases innovation and risk taking. When anger fuels tantrums, those bullied by their immature coworkers and superiors never quite recover. They walk on eggshells from then on always fearful of another outburst. And if no consequence is attached to those angry outbursts, these hissy fits will continue and increase.

But most leaders view their own anger as a different matter. Others become angry for no reason. Their anger is justified. Others’ outbursts are signs of emotional immaturity; their anger is a reflection of their commitment to organizational excellence, an understandable reaction to others’ shortcomings. Their anger and subsequent outbursts motivate others to pay closer attention, to strive harder to do their best. Leaders are expected to get angry when things don’t go their way. And their subordinates are supposed to take it. After all, this is the way great leaders behave. This attitude, while widespread, is nonsense.

In this blog series, I will take a position that may make you uncomfortable. I will make the case that a leader’s anger is never justified and always represents a leadership flaw. Anger is a sign of emotional immaturity. And it is always the leader’s fault. Leaders are human and anger is a common emotion, but learning to manage it is a critical leadership responsibility and skill.

Your anger is under your control. You can learn to become less angry less often. You can learn to remain calm, detached and curious instead. When you fail and become angry, you can learn to recognize your impairment and keep quiet and restrained until your self-generated outrage subsides. The blog posts that follow will explain exactly what to do. It is not easy to manage your anger, but easy is not what leadership is about. You will learn faster if you participate in the conversation and if you practice the following recommended strategies every time you choose to become outraged.