• 11.17.10

Should a Leader Show Anger?

Some bosses express admiration and enthusiasm to motivate their employees. Others use anger and criticism to spur them on through intimidation and fear. Which works better, the carrot or the stick?


The picture is not as clear as you might think. While most people would agree that it’s not a good idea to get visibly angry with your employees, there are many examples of successful leaders who are famous for the occasional, if not frequent, nasty tirade (e.g, Gordon Ramsay, Rahm Emanuel, Meg Whitman, Donald Trump). So is it really true that showing your anger will always backfire on you, undermining your employees’ performance?


New research suggests that anger can in fact be a good motivator, but whether or not it works depends in large part on the personality of your employee.

It turns out, people differ in the extent to which they desire harmonious relationships. For some of us, getting along with the other people in our lives is of utmost importance. Not surprisingly, people who feel this way tend to be more courteous and respectful, prefer cooperation over competition, and are more trusting and thoughtful of others. In other words, they score high on measures of the personality trait called agreeableness.

People low in agreeableness, on the other hand, don’t care as much if everyone in the sandbox isn’t playing nicely together. They get into arguments more often, don’t shy away from conflict, are more skeptical of the motives and actions of others, and are bothered less by insensitive behavior.

It stands to reason, then that anger should be a more effective motivator for people who care less about harmony, but should be too anxiety-provoking and counterproductive when harmonious relationships matter more.

In a recent study, participants were assigned to four person teams to work on a complex decision-making task. After a practice session, the team received comments from their leader, who always gave the team the same feedback, indicating that they needed to work on communication, speed, and accuracy. All that differed was the emotional tone of the feedback – “angry” leaders frowned a lot, spoke in an irritable tone of voice, clenched their fists, and looked sterm, while “happy” leaders looked cheerful, spoke un an upbeat tone of voice, and smiled frequently.

Teams whose members who scored relatively high in agreeableness performed about 10% better with happy leaders than they did with angry ones. When their leader behaved angrily, these teams reported that they felt the task was too difficult, and that it required them to pay attention to and make decisions about too many things at once. In other words, they felt rattled, and it took a toll on their performance.


However, teams that were low in agreeableness performed about 10% better on the task with an angry leader than they did with a happy one! They took the task more seriously and increased their effort, resulting in superior performance.

The take-home message is simply this: if you are going to get angry, make sure you try to reserve it for your less agreeable employees. They just might find it motivating. And on the bright side, your less agreeable employees are probably the ones making you angry in the first place.

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