Bob Lieberman's Blog

Commentary and Tools For Empowering Change

Don’t Get Mad, Get Real

Ever hear the street advice, “Don’t get mad, get even”? I hope we’ve learned the futility of that. But I’ve recently read advice that we should not get angry in the workplace, and I don’t buy that either. Nor do I believe it’s possible.  

There’s a big difference between getting angry and acting out, and apparently the distinction needs some emphasis. Getting angry is something you have no control over. Each of us is different, but we are all wired to react defensively to certain stimuli, in certain situations. Frustration, resentment, fear, and jealousy are just a few of the emotions — which we experience daily — that lead to feelings of anger. Trying not to get angry is like trying to dam a river. It is a major engineering project, and the river always wins in the end.

Fortunately damming the river of anger is not necessary, because anger is not the problem. The problem is acting out. More specifically, the problem is acting out at the direction of your anger rather than at your own direction. What can be done, and what needs to be done, is to cultivate one’s ability to let time pass between your feeling of anger and your resulting action. That ability is what Stephen Covey refers to as the Eighth Habit, in his 2005 book by the same name. It is the habit of declining the invitation to take reflexive action. Simply exercising that ability to delay action disarms the reflex and leaves room for the much more constructive strategies of reflection and intention. 

These thoughts are on my mind now because I’m reading Runde and Flanagan’s 2007 book, "Becoming A Conflict Competent Leader". It teaches business leaders what they need to know about conflict and about the constructive and destructive strategies we call upon to react to it. The conflict competent leader learns how to act constructively, and this book gives advice to get you started. There are some vivid case studies that drive the points home. I found the book extremely valuable, especially given the stress-filled business situations I have been finding myself in lately. 

Of the book’s 217 pages, I have dog-eared several, but I only red-tabbed one. And the following gem is what I find there: 

"When controversy is managed constructively, the conflict partners use collaborative and conflict management skills, for example:
  • The ability to be critical of ideas, not people
  • The ability to separate personal worth issues from criticism of one’s ideas
  • An uncompromising focus on best outcomes, not winning
  • Listening to others’ ideas
  • Efforts to understand all sides of issues"

Conflict is challenging, for the participants, their colleagues, and the people who must influence or manage them. It is also a treasure trove of ideas whose synthesis will open new doorways to solve intractable problems. But where there is conflict there is anger. 

The book lists the common strategies that people use in the face of anger, and they are largely defensive. You can make peace with conflict (an interesting choice of words), if you know how to handle it. And anger can be your friend too. 

In fact, anger had better be your friend, because you will have a lot of it (as we all do). Just remember to watch it instead of obey it. You want anger to become your fuel rather than the other way around. 

So when the opportunity arises, don’t get mad, and don’t get even either. Just get real.