About 15 years ago, UC Berkeley's Barry Staw and I had a running conversation about the conditions under which showing anger, even having a temper tantrum, is strategic versus something that undermines a person's reputation and influence, and for leaders, the performance of their teams and organizations. In fact, Barry eventually collected some amazing in-the-locker room half-time speeches for basketball coaches that he is currently working on writing and publishing.
I thought of those old conversations when I got this amazing note the other day (this is the same one that inspired me to do my last post on the Atilla the Manager cartoon):
I just discovered your work via Tom Fishburne, the Marketoonist. I had an asshole boss until I got her fired. For 6 years I was abused and I should have done what you say and got out as soon as I could. But you get comfortable and used to the abuse. You even think you are successfully managing the abusers behavior with your behavior. Ridiculous I know. I suffered everything you mentioned including depression, anxiety and just plain unhappiness. The day I snapped, I used the "I quit and I'm taking you down with me" tactic. I did document the abuse even though just like every asshole situation, everyone knew she was an abuser. In an impassioned meeting I let top management know exactly why I was quitting, let them know they are culpable for all the mental anquish and turnover and poor results stemming from the asshole. They probably thought I was a madman with nothing left to lose and about to sue and defame the company (they'd have been correct). Two hours later she was walked out. Now the department is doing great and actually producing instead of trying to manage the reactions of a lunatic.
I am taken with this note for numerous reasons. For starters, I am always delighted when the victim of an asshole finds a successful way to to fight back. I am also pleased to see that, as happens so often, once this creep was sent packing, people could stop spending their days trying to deal with her antics and instead could devote their energies to doing their jobs well. And in thinking about it in more detail -- and thinking back to those old conversations with Barry -- I believe that showing anger was effective in this situation for at least three reasons.
1. He was right. This was, as the headline says, an evidence-based temper tantrum. Although his superiors may have not been overly pleased with how he delivered the news, he apparently had darn good evidence that this person was an asshole and doing harm to him and his co-workers. Facts matter, even when emotions flare.
2. His anger was a reflection of how others felt, not just his particular quirks and flaws. This outpouring of anger and the ultimatum he gave were seen as giving voice to how everyone who worked with this "lunatic" felt. It was his tantrum, but it was on behalf of and gave voice to others. In such situations, when a person is not seen as out of touch reality or crazy, even though he may have felt or even acted like a "madman" for the moment, the anger and refusal to give in can be very powerful. I also suspect that, in this case, those same bosses who fired him felt he same way about the local asshole, and his anger propelled them to take an action they knew was the right thing to do. The notion that emotions are contagious and propel action is quite well established in a lot of studies (see research by Elaine Hatfield for example).
3. The was a rare tantrum. This follows from the last point. If you are always ranting and yelling and making threats, people aren't likely to take you seriously. Tantrums are effective when they are seen as a rare and justified outburst rather than a personal characteristic -- as something that is more easily attributed to the bad situation the person is in rather than personal weakness or style.
Please, please don't use this fellow's success as a reason to start yelling and making threats and all that. That is what a certified asshole would do. But -- while such outbursts are not always the product of rational planning -- this little episode provides instructive guidance about when expressing anger might produce outcomes for the greater good. It also provides some interesting hints about when it is best to try to stop outbursts from those you are close to versus when egging them on is a reasonable thing to do.
Finally, a big thanks to the anonymous writer of this note. I learned something from it and I hope that other do as well.P.S. This note and post makes me think that some revision to my list of Tips for Surviving Workplace Assholes might be in order.