Nobody likes being angry, but at the same time, no one manages to avoid it.
Anger has been a topic of psychological research for over a century. It played a central role in Charles Darwin’s development of evolutionary theory, in which he argued that just like any other pervasive animal or human behavior, there has to be a benefit to anger, or it wouldn’t be expressed so frequently. He noted that one of the key functions of anger is displaying intimidating and aggressive emotional signals to others, to protect or gain power.
More recently, psychologists have outlined and measured many varieties of anger, such as suspicion, irritability, dissent, and various [other] indirect forms, and its role and consequences at work. This has helped with the development of effective interventions to combat anger.
Unsurprisingly, research has linked anger to a wide range of negative and undesirable outcomes, such as assault, violence, and heart attacks. Clearly, anger is a powerful stress agent, and its workplace implications justify every attempt to contain it.
Exposure to anger—including playing violent video games, such as Angry Birds—appears to nurture angry tendencies. But there is much more evidence for the idea that anger is more deeply rooted in people’s personalities, shaped more by their biology than specific environmental factors. Likewise, many organizational factors such as complex interpersonal relationships, financial pressure, high stakes, and factors beyond people’s control, have been known to trigger workplace anger.
That said, there is also a brighter side to anger, which is rarely discussed. For instance, at work, angry reactions to incompetence or unethical behaviors are more likely to motivate a proactive response to inhibit such problems as opposed to complacency or indifference. Seeing or experiencing unfairness, inequity, or injustice at work should make us angry. We depend on that anger to replace the status quo with a more just and moral state of affairs. For example, anger is a better reaction to an abusive boss or supervisor than contempt.
In that sense, anger is no different from other emotions, such as guilt, sadness, or shame, in that it helps us assess and react to a situation, directing our thoughts and behaviors toward a relevant goal. Employees will often experience anger out of frustration when they fail to accomplish a goal or are irritated by colleagues. While that’s not pleasant, it is still necessary to prepare an adaptive or functional response. The key is to react in an emotionally intelligent, rather than self-defeating or self-destructive, way.
A more controversial benefit of anger is its ability to propel people to leadership roles. Although we should have more leaders with higher levels of emotional intelligence—which, in essence, is an anger-control trait—many individuals, particularly men, are regarded as more leader-like (tough, assertive, aggressive, and strong) when they showcase anger. As I argue in my latest book, Why do so many incompetent men become leaders (and how to fix it)? this is one of the reasons for the surplus of incompetent men in leadership positions. Indeed, many kind, calm, and empathetic men are overlooked for leadership roles because they don’t fit the archetype of the strong macho leader. But make no mistake: Anger can be a strong status-enhancing emotion, and this is one of its biggest upsides if you are an angry male. It speaks to our chimpanzee heritage.
Anger is also an effective weapon for persuasion, as anyone who follows politics will have noticed. For all the concerns about combative and divisive political leaders, they may just be serving as vessels for the anger of the masses. Research shows that anger effectively augments the expression of moral outrage to drive social change. Ultimately, those who don’t approve are more likely to disagree with the direction of change, or its underlying beliefs, than the way it occurs.
Finally, studies also show that suppressed and repressed anger is often more painful than their expressed form. In the words of Mark Twain, “Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.” If one is agnostic to the values and visions these angry—and so often charismatic—politicians espouse (and it’s a big “if”), we can see how instrumental and adaptive anger can be to establish an emotional connection between the leader and the masses. Needless to say, this makes many people angry.