A culture of outrage can destroy teams. Here’s how to make sure it doesn’t happen to yours

Because outrage is easy, it blots out more nuanced feelings such as sympathy, empathy, and contextual understanding that would allow us to fully appreciate the behavior we wish to sanction.

A culture of outrage can destroy teams. Here’s how to make sure it doesn’t happen to yours
[Photo: Mohamed Nohassi/Unsplash]

Between protests over shelter-in-place orders and the ubiquitous shaming over whether people should or should not be wearing masks, it seems like everyone is outraged at how someone else is dealing with the coronavirus crisis.


Now that a significant portion of the workforce is telecommuting while potentially balancing caregiving and homeschooling responsibilities, that outrage has spilled into the fabric of our daily work interactions. Why can’t she keep her dogs from barking during our conference call? I know he has small kids at home, but it’s ridiculous that he couldn’t complete the report on time.

There is no question that frustrations are running high right now, at all levels, and that tightening the constraints of social norms might feel like an appropriate response. But when left uncontrolled, outrage will tear a business team apart faster than any violation of norms it was intended to counteract.

What exactly is outrage?

Outrage is not simply disagreeing with the actions of another. It’s that internal churning, about a person or situation, that triggers feelings of anger, indignation, and righteousness. It is scornful, ridiculing, and full of judgment. Outrage is also one of the most common ways we respond to violations of what we perceive to be the principles of our community. Indeed, we are hardwired as social animals to respond to violations of norms in this way. Expressing outrage at transgressions shows that you are committed to the values of the group. That is why times of crisis, when community unity is most needed, often heighten our sense of outrage.

Yet, like many natural reactions, when placed in the context of modern social dynamics, outrage can be self-defeating. Think of the fight-or-flight instincts that cause our adrenaline to spike under stress. They are critical for running from predators, but in the business world they often serve only to telegraph our nervousness. Because outrage is easy, it blots out more nuanced feelings such as sympathy, empathy, and contextual understanding that would allow us to fully appreciate the behavior we wish to sanction.

Outrage feels good because it makes us feel right and superior, but this feeling deadens our ability to assess our own behavior. Outrage causes us to stop evaluating the reasonableness of our rules and consequences. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t have any rules or consequences. However, the harsh and unbending code of moral outrage is not the same as maintaining discipline.

The English essayist William Hazlitt observed that “[e]very man, in his own opinion, forms an exception to the ordinary rules of morality.” If we are outraged about wrongdoing it is easy to believe we cannot be wrongdoers.


How outrage destroys

One of the major purposes of working in teams is to combine a diverse set of experiences, skills, working styles, and aptitudes into something that is collectively stronger than the sum of its parts. Working effectively in a team requires adherence to the team’s norms (as anyone who has ever been forced to work with a freeloading classmate or colleague will know). But it also requires the team to accommodate the individuals. Forcing everyone into the same cookie-cutter patterns destroys the very diversity that makes the team so powerful. In many cases, the coronavirus crisis has upended this careful balancing act, as teams are under new stresses and require new accommodations.

When outrage goes unquestioned and unchecked, some leaders can fall back on rigid enforcement of inappropriate norms. Parents with small children home from school aren’t given basic accommodations. Workers are fired for wearing masks. Haircut requirements remain in force even as barbershops across the country are shuttered. This type of behavior is deeply corrosive to both short-term effectiveness and long-term loyalty.

How to temper outrage

Coming to grips with outrage requires connecting with our own emotions, digging under the surface to ask ourselves “Why am I reacting this way?” This can be uncomfortable. It is much easier to judge or lash out at someone rather than acknowledge that in fact we feel scared, stressed, depressed, or the like. Suppressing those emotions is part of what feeds moral outrage. On the other hand, accepting them and giving them a name puts us on the path toward empathy. Perhaps the actions of others that we judge so harshly is also driven by fear or stress.

We can diminish the negative effects of our outrage in a few simple steps.

Take inventory

Often in a crisis our inner world diverges from our outer world. On the outside we try to project confidence, calmness, and a sense of control. On the inside, however, we may be experiencing panic, grief, or fear. Take some time to consider what is going on in your life. Get out a pad of paper and map your inner world. Especially with the world in such turmoil, are you worried about work, stressed by homeschooling, or not getting enough sleep? It sounds obvious that we have these worries, but often we don’t take enough time to acknowledge them and to consider how those feelings affect our interactions with the world. Have you developed a short temper, been ignoring people, or started having trouble concentrating? Where is that coming from? Take an inventory, acknowledge how crowded, noisy, and even painful your inner world feels.


Translate your inner world to the people around you

News flash—your family or coworkers can’t see inside your head. We diminish outrage and diffuse volatile interactions by intermediating between what is going on inside and how we communicate with others. This can be as simple as saying something such as “I’m sorry I’ve been so short-tempered lately, but I’m worried about . . .” or “I am feeling really stressed trying to juggle work and my children.” When we fail to let others know how we really feel, to translate the inner world to the outer world, it leads to destructive communication failures. When we yell at work because of stress at home (both of which are in our living room), our coworkers can be confused and hurt, while we feel resentful and isolated because they do not seem to understand or appreciate our secret pain. The act of translating our inner emotions for others extends a bridge that allows for compassion and connection, and a better understanding.

We live in a world inundated with moral outrage. Surrounded by social media trolls, we have normalized public dialogue that is vitriolic, dehumanizing, and shaming. In the midst of our generalized outrage, we seem, as a society, to have lost any instinct for evaluating our own behavior.

Counteracting that requires that we be honest with ourselves and lead with empathy. We do not need to be literally without sin to cast the first stone, but we must learn to temper our outrage with nuance and self-reflection, to recognize that we have also sometimes failed to hit the mark, required accommodation, or fallen short in various ways.

Everyone has an inner world, whether they are willing to translate it or not. You can safely assume that everyone on your team has some sort of inner stress. Translating our inner worlds and communicating our willingness to support those around us will make a big difference in reducing outrage and supporting our teams.

Meredith Parfet is the CEO and Aaron Solomon is the director of strategy for the Ravenyard Group, a crisis communications firm that fuses strategic and technical expertise with a focus on well-being.