How to avoid the devastating affect of being an angry Leader

Aug 18, 2017DISC, Leadership, Performance Management

Confessions of an angry Leader…


It was as if I had lost my peripheral vision entirely and my hearing too, I could hear muffled words but not make out what was being said. I felt hot, my clothes felt uncomfortably tight, there was no air. I didn’t feel like I was in the room anymore, there but not there, as strange as that sounds.  I was shaking slightly, losing control, something was going on inside me that was building… like a train gaining momentum. The words pounded loudly in my head ‘how could they?’ ‘how dare they say those things?’ on a loop as I got more and more agitated.


Afterwards I remember erupting, banging my fist on the table, and shouting ‘I’m not going to sit here while you criticise my hard work, I’ve just about had enough of this, and it’s not the first time, I’ve kept quiet before but…’ as I pointed my fingers accusingly at each of the Board Members.


I’ll leave you to imagine the rest of it. Two years of meetings trying to build a working relationship, trying to get the Board to understand things from my perspective. My temper had once again, served to severely disrupt my efforts and my reputation.


I get so upset about it afterwards. I’ve always been told I’m just an angry person. What can I do about it? The shame eats me up. 



Most of us have been on both sides of the table of an angry exchange. We’ve been there for angry outbursts, desperately trying to avoid getting in the firing line. Tip-toeing around after the event. Perhaps we’ve also been the one who got visibly overheated at a meeting and said something we wished we hadn’t, conscious afterwards that we weren’t ourselves.


We’ve all tried to avoid the emotional contagion that happens in the aftermath. Have you noticed how it impacts everyone, even for the entire day? Humans have social brains therefore our brains and bodies react to the feelings of the people around us.

What is Anger?


The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as-

Anger: Noun: A strong feeling of annoyance, displeasure, or hostility.

Anger: Verb: Fill (someone) with anger; provoke anger in.


Anger is one of the primary human emotions; love, joy, surprise, anger and fear (Shaver et al 2001).  Emotions are messages from our body with information about our experiences. We’ve been trained by our society to ignore our emotions especially the negative ones. We’re constantly bombarded with tips about Happiness and staying Positive. We’re here to remind you that It’s okay to feel anger but not to lead with it.


Anger can be a catalyst for change, imagine how the Women’s rights movement would have gone if all the women had been really polite and asked nicely for things to change? However behaving in an angry manner with your Team is the opposite of everything that a leader represents.


At the Complete Leader Ireland we say the five primary competencies a leader must possess are Self Management, Personal Accountability, Goal Achievement, Interpersonal Skills and Persuasion.


In the words of Jim Rohn ‘The challenge of leadership is to be strong, but not rude; be kind, but not weak; be bold, but not bully; be thoughtful, but not lazy; be humble, but not timid; be proud, but not arrogant; have humor, but without folly.’


Leaders usually model best behaviour for others to follow. That said, leaders are human beings not superheroes. A leader can get away with losing her temper once or twice with a sincere apology but after that it becomes a problem. If you develop a reputation for being angry, that is not only impacting your existing relationships but also you future ones. You may well be diversely affecting your company’s performance.

The Brain Science


According to Daniel Goleman, when there are power differences in a group, the most powerful person- i.e. the leader sends emotions, setting the emotional tone for everyone in the group. It’s a huge responsibility to be a leader. He adds that people remember negative interactions with a boss more intensely and more often than they do positive ones.


Furthermore as relationships are built upon trust, anger is the acid that corrodes that trust. Your team won’t approach you with their ideas, existing challenges or potential solutions, worse they will work for you because they’re afraid of you and not because they admire you as a leader of character.


People aren’t just ‘angry people’ and losing control doesn’t come out of nowhere. It just seems that way. We need to look at the  science to give us a better idea of what’s actually going on and why it can feel like a roller coaster going off the tracks.


According to TTI Success insights our emotions have a physiological effect on us prior to cognition, or before we even understand what we’re feeling.


This is essentially the remnants of a prehistoric fight or flight survival instinct. At times of high emotion, our slower and more complex prefrontal cortex (which controls rational thought and decision making) shuts down and our faster and more instinctual Amygdala takes over allowing us to react quickly.



Emotional hijacking is often referred to as “Amygdala Hijacking” since that is essentially what happens in the brain during these times of crisis.


When we’re under stress, our performance is affected as our attention is narrowed to focus on the immediate stressor, as in the man in the story at the beginning. Our memory is also affected and searches for thoughts that are most relevant the current situation.


A person suffering from “Amygdala Hijacking” may become extremely reactive, defensive and lash out at the stressor. And if that stressor is another person, things can turn negative quickly. Preventing emotional hijacking from occurring in the first place is paramount to being successful in the workplace.


The more a leader can develop their EQ specifically their Self-Awareness and their self-regulation, the more able a person is to understand, identify and subdue an emotional hijacking situation. What’s critical here is an awareness of our emotions, an awareness of our triggers, and an ability and process to de-escalate before the train goes off the rails!


All’s not Lost!


Don’t give up just yet! The brain is plastic and new neural pathways can be forged with intention and practice. It’s unfortunate that one of our classes in school was not how to be more aware of our emotions. Thinking about anger differently is the first place to start. Psychologist Carol Tavris calls anger the “misunderstood emotion’ it’s generally defined as negative and for sure it can have a toxic impact when used incorrectly.


However suppressing anger does not work as a self management strategy. Firstly we must begin to understand that there is intelligence and wisdom trying to emerge from our emotions- even the negative ones and pay attention. Antonio Damasio author and neuroscientist says ‘emotions are action-requiring neurological programs ‘ ..’essential for the maintenance of life and for subsequent maturation of the individual that they are reliably deployed in early development.’


Think of them as red lights on your dash. Often anger is masking something else, sometimes it’s as simple as stress, exhaustion or hunger. So start with developing awareness about your needs and meeting them. Psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, creator of the Nonviolent Communication (NVC) process believes that “At the core of all anger is a need that is not being fulfilled.”


Yes but how do I avoid the devastating affect of being an angry leader?


Let’s start with the basics

  1. Start with your ‘Why’. What’s your motivation to change? Personal growth requires sustained commitment. Find out what is driving you. If money is your driver and your company performance is suffering, then imagine how much better your bottom line will be. Imagine a figure in your Bank Account. If it’s Status and you want to rescue your reputation, then have a compelling image. Imagine yourself as you will be, sharpen the focus of your image. Find an image that you can put on your desk that represents this for you. Refer back to it to keep yourself motivated.


  1. Design your environment to prevent yourself from getting hungry, frustrated, tired and stressed. Make out your weekly wellbeing plan. Sleep well, get enough exercise, map out your day so you don’t skip meals – even if you have to eat your lunch late, do so. Take regular breaks, include some time outside or go for a walk, being in nature makes a real difference to improve your mood.


  1. Be aware of your Caffeine intake. Everyone reacts differently to caffeine, so notice how it impacts your mood as it can tend to make people more irritable and angry according to the University of Iowa. One to two cups (200-300mg) a day is a normal dose. More than that is considered heavy consumption (500-600mg) Cut back if you are experiencing side effects


  1. At The Complete Leader Ireland, we’re big fans of the pause. Pause after each task or meeting, take just a couple of minutes to let the previous one go, practice deep breaths then move on to your next task with a clear head.


  1. Identify a Trusted Advisor who is allowed to feedback to you about your angry behaviour and whether it’s impacting your Team. Elicit vital information such as any triggers they’ve noticed, or any people that you seem to clash with. Be like a detective and get the facts.


Learn about your patterns, your hot buttons and upgrade your OS to remove any glitches


  1. Be open and willing to change. Get into the trenches with your emotions. All Emotional Intelligence (EQ) Work is based on developing the first competency – self awareness. With ongoing work this allows us to transform our behaviour, we become more in tune with ourselves, we stop reacting to situations and begin responding to them.


At the Complete leader we use TTI TriMetrix EQ reports to get a full view of ourselves, our behaviours, our motivators and our EQ. David Rock the author refers to the “attentional blink,” the time gap required between identifying different stimuli (such as, one thought or feeling after another) . Usually we have ½ second before the mind can be free to think about something new, according to this great blog from the Intentional Workplace


  1. Self Management comes from Self Awareness. Recognising our emotions and getting to the bottom of them is the key to Self Management. What is the emotion telling you? Get specific, don’t be general about your emotions. Recent research by Matthew Lieberman of UCLA has identified that developing a rich vocabulary and naming your feelings can actually serve to limit and reverse the limbic system reaction to the prefrontal cortex. “In the same way you hit the brake when you’re driving when you see a yellow light, when you put feelings into words, you seem to be hitting the brakes on your emotional responses.”


  1. In her blog on Befriending Anger Louise Altman suggests we need to ask ourselves questions about anger in order to understand it better


  • What do you believe about anger?
  • What is its purpose?
  • How do you express your anger?
  • How do you want others to express their anger to you?
  • How do you repress your anger?
  • Do you do anything to shut down the anger of others?
  • If your anger could talk, what would it say?


  1. Identify your Triggers: These are your hot buttons and are maps to your beliefs and thoughts. What tends to make you angry? What has made you angry in the past?


A lot of the time our triggers carry baggage from the past. Ever notice yourself get angry over something very trivial? Challenge the thoughts once they start as this can help to de-escalate. Journal this so that you really get to know your Triggers intimately and spot them immediately.


  1. Identify your bodily Cues:


  • How does anger feel to you?
  • What is the sensation/s in your body?
  • What happens next?
  • What are the thoughts in my head?


Sylvia Lafair’s Inc blog on ways to stay calm recommends detaching by noticing where the anger is, putting your hand on your head, neck, or gut and observing the feelings. Just doing this and the fury will begin to subside.


  1. Identify your soothers and a process for de-escalation.


When I get angry, what helps is……..


For example:


  • I go to the toilet and throw cold water on my face, I repeat ‘I’m calm and in control. Every problem has a solution.’
  • Moving changes the brain chemistry and so does smiling, changing your body language.
  • I count to ten, whilst taking deep breaths and then I express myself calmly.
  • I commit to Journaling about my experiences later or talking to someone I trust.
  • According to Prof Zillman, University of Alabama Psychologist, distraction is a highly powerful mood-altering device. He recommends spending time alone or a long walk if this is possible. They change the physiology from high arousal to a lower arousal state.
  • Some people use a picture of someone they love or a really striking scene to distract themselves from their emotion in the moment. (Note, we don’t recommend suppressing anger just managing it effectively in the moment and unpacking it later).


  1. Find someone you can vent with, maybe your spouse or someone neutral, if you can’t find someone, find a safe space and vent by yourself!


  1. Meditation, Mindfulness and Breathwork is essential for self-regulation. Brain research shows those who meditate are able to modify their brain activity upon command. This ability to self-regulate and clear the mind allows deeper contemplation and higher states of awareness according to Dr. Ron Bonnstetter (TTI Research & Development) He explains more about the lasting benefits to your mind and body in this short clip


  1. Join a Leadership programme to develop your Leadership skills such as The Complete Leader Ireland where you can learn with Subject matter experts, other Leaders and Professional Coaches in a safe space.




Hit the Reset button and Communicate calmly


Firstly, use your soothing and calming process. Make sure you are calm before you open your mouth. If in doubt as to this, delay further. Recognise that there are not only two options for dealing with anger, expression and repression. We can channel the anger into a constructive, but assertive discussion to re-establish our position, reputation or whatever we see as having been threatened or lost. Anger gives us the energy to be our authentic selves and your authentic self, I can guarantee you, is not red faced and shouting at your Team.


  1. Use ‘I’ statements to express yourself – ‘I feel angry and confused. I thought my Team was working well on this project’ etc. No blaming and shaming.


  1. Ask open questions, ‘how can we move past this, how can I get back on track?


  1. Actively listen, park your own judgements and give the other person time and space to explain their side.


  1. Look for common ground to resolve the situation quickly and amicable.


  1. Let it go. I mean it. Go for a walk, a run, meditate, but leave it behind. Your reputation as a leader counts on it.



Great leaders move us. They ignite our passion and inspire the best in us. When we try to explain why they are so effective, we speak of strategy, vision, or powerful ideas. But the reality is much more primal: Great leadership works through emotions.”

According to Goleman, Boyatzis and McKee, 2002: (p.3)

Final Thoughts


Change your mindset. Use a growth mindset. Think of anger as a messenger, what do you need to know? Pay attention to your body. Are you hungry, tired or frustrated? What are your needs?


Do you need to draw a boundary line, has your personal integrity or your position been compromised? What do you need to do?


Know the patterns of your anger. What happens in your body? Be able to recognise that you are being triggered by something from your past if that’s the case*. Challenge those thoughts as soon as they arise. Use your de-escalation process.


Check your well being, do an audit of how on track you are you with regard to exercising, eating healthily, hobbies, meditation, connecting with friends and family and having fun. Readjust as needs be.


Don’t repress your anger and don’t be led by anger. Use your anger as your inner strength and not a weapon to hurt others.


At The Complete Leader Ireland, we recommend focusing on your strengths but with the caveat that if there’s a weakness that’s impacting your Leadership now, then it needs to be dealt with. Don’t delay. Now’s the time to address this issue and get back to the business of building your business and making money!


*Sometimes there may be an underlying issue from childhood or a trauma and you may need extra help and the advice of a Professional Psychotherapist.


In 1980 Robert Plutchik constructed a wheel-like diagram of emotions visualising eight basic emotions, plus eight derivative emotions each composed of two basic ones. (Source: Wikimedia Commons).





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