The dominant story this election season is anger. On both sides of the political spectrum, angry primary voters have propelled so-called anti-establishment candidates like Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and Ted Cruz to the fore—in turn, angering the so-called party elite.
Anger is a powerful force. Not only does it deeply impact our decision-making, but as anyone watching the presidential race can tell you, it can also turn organizations inside out. Here's how.
In general, emotions arise from humans' motivational system, which generates the feelings allowing it to communicate with the rest of the brain. The way that ordinarily works is intuitive to most of us: When you're progressing toward your goals, you feel good; when you're prevented from achieving them, you feel bad. And the more more committed you are to those goals, the more energy there'll be behind the feelings you have.
But "anger" isn't just any negative emotion that results from hitting an obstacle to a goal—that feeling also needs to so much motivational energy behind it that it threatens to overwhelm our ability to control it. What makes anger complex is that it can arise in so many many different circumstances; there's fear-based anger that emerges from a threat, for instance, and there's approach-based anger, which comes when you're blocked from achieving a desired outcome.
In general, of course, motivational energy is important because it drives action. But the energy that comes with anger can lead people to do things they later regret—precisely because they're unable to stop themselves from acting.
That points up another troublesome dimension to anger: it's often the consequence of situations over which we feel powerless. Road rage, for instance, is rampant when people are stuck in traffic can't get where they want to go. The main danger with this kind of anger is that people ultimately direct it at things that may not be the source of the problem but that they can control.
It's an overturned vehicle on the left shoulder that's causing the traffic jam that's making you angry. But you can't clear it off the road yourself, so instead you honk and give the finger to drivers who commit minor transgressions as you all inch furiously forward together.
The American political atmosphere right now is a rough psychological equivalent of that traffic jam, writ large. Many voters feel their personal situation hasn't improved even as the economy has gotten better, but they don't have much control over that. They feel the government isn't working—that the system is set up to prevent things from getting better for ordinary Americans.
Pretty much all the time, not just in 2016, politicians exploit voters' frustrations and give it direction—at certain periods in history, toward positive social change, and at other times toward violence. Whatever your political views, there's no doubt that this election cycle has seen some of that anger directed at groups outside a candidate's base: Trump has notoriously singled out Mexican and Muslim immigrants.
Yet that's merely the most recent example of how anger tends to wreak havoc on organizations. The Republican Party is in a historic state of disarray (and the Democrats have their own share of internal divisions to grapple with). In most organizations, there's often some measure of tension already latent between management and workers: management needs to increase productivity and to keep costs down; workers want to maximize the benefits they receive for the work they put in. Typically those forces aren't enough to upend the organization.
But when workers feel they're being mistreated, their lack of control over the situation generate mounting anger. And this energy often gets directed unproductively in the workplace. Shouting matches can erupt at work. Employees may treat customers badly. This anger may even create divisions among workers. (The history of the labor movement, you might even say, has been geared toward harnessing this anger for productive means, to push for rights and fairer treatment.)
When these tensions do start to rise, managers need to create opportunities to dissipate negative energy as harmlessly as possible. Unlike politicians—who may whip it up in order to gain support—business leaders need to dampen tempers.
Leaders first need to understand where the anger's coming from and acknowledge its real source. They can typically make changes situations that give employees a greater sense of control.
Second, leaders need to create some distance between the problems that are blocking people from reaching their goals. The closer people feel to a situation, the more they'll be motivationally engaged with it—in other words, angry. Increases in physical or mental distance lead to decreases in motivational energy and dampened emotions.
Third, leaders should work to direct energy in productive ways. Find whatever's out of joint in the workplace that would benefit from action, and direct people toward those factors. In order to make that work, though, leadership and management also need to be visibly engaged in the same actions as the rest of the workforce. That way, anger can be used to unify the organization rather than divide it.
The outcome of the U.S. presidential election remains to be seen, of course. But the consequences of anger in the electorate are already clear enough. Let's hope the candidates will find ways to use it create more positive change and less destruction.