Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, April 11, 2022
by Neil Senturia
The slap heard ’round the world — except for those 20 seconds of real-time on network television, when your screen went blank, while an angry Hollywood celebrity was expressing his feelings with colorful language. (That’s why we have the Internet).
I will leave the pundits in Hollywood to figure and configure the outcomes of the Will Smith/Chris Rock contretemps. But that exchange suggests that we might want to discuss anger in the workplace. How do we manage or fail to manage anger?
Hollywood has worked in the anger area on more than one occasion. Al Pacino (“Scarface”), Jack Nicholson (“A Few Good Men,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”), Robert DeNiro (“The Godfather,” “Goodfellas”) — the list is long and famous.
But it is not only men. Susan Sarandon (“Thelma and Louise”), Uma Thurman (“Kill Bill”) Noomi Rapace, (“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”). Equally famous. To some extent, Hollywood has sanctioned anger since it makes good drama. Maybe Mr. Smith thought he was on another movie set.
Let’s think a bit about anger issues in our own entrepreneurial efforts. I am going to suggest that anger is closely tied to negotiation (or lack thereof), namely when you don’t get what you want, that you think is logical and reasonable, and why the hell did they say no to this when it is obviously the right thing to do — well, that is when the anger bot rises up, and you do something stupid. And then trying to walk it back (a politician’s phrase) is very difficult.
After the apology (you need to do that), the other person says, “Sure, I understand, no problem, all is forgiven.” Except it is not. We all hang on to the hurts. We remember.
The cost of that kind of anger can be very high. A moment of insanity, fueled by rage, and you have a lifetime in prison to think about it.
A book by Dr. Robert Nay lays out five types of anger. Passive-aggressive, sarcasm, cold-anger, hostility and aggression. Nice to name them, but I like to look in the mirror from time to time and make them personal.
A key driver in the anger puzzle is lack of control. You have a group in your company that you think is underperforming. Walking down the hall (or on Zoom, where it is really hard to take things back) and getting angry, confrontational, demanding improvement is not going to be effective. You can’t will it as much as you might like to.
That leads us right back to a recognition of the need to negotiate. I recently listened to a podcast from Zoe Chance on persuasion, and she offered up her “magic question” (courtesy of Gloria Steinem). She starts all negotiations with “What will it take?” If you want behavior change, the baseline starts with that question.
The value of that question depends on your ability to listen. Because what you hear back is most likely not what you thought the solution was. It is not a “what can I do” question, but rather a “what will it take” to make a deal that affects a desired change. In a marriage “OK, I will do the dishes on leap years,” is not going to get you there.
Next, you need to set a reasonable time frame for the deliverable. This is the classic software development creep with missed deadlines, when you try to do a year of work in a month, by hiring 12 more developers. Nope. Babies take nine months, period paragraph.
Consider some of our tech titans. Elizabeth Holmes, Adam Neumann, Travis Kalanick, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk — and so on. Towering figures with fabled outbursts of rage and anger — wedded to the mother of them all — intimidation.
Some entrepreneurs use those icons to justify bad behavior. For the majority of us, it is a risky strategy. Maybe from time to time, once in a blue moon, it will have the proper effect — but use sparingly, like hot sauce Mad Dog 357 Gold.
Control and anger are two sides of the triangle. The hypotenuse is ego. Give it up, Isosceles.
Rule No. 709:
“The Scream” — Edvard Munch, but not you.