Does Expression of Anger Help a Team?

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AngerDavid, a web developer at General Engines, has always been feisty, with strong opinions about what should be built on the website. But right now he is pissed. His manager, Laura, just told his team they’re not getting the budget increase they requested. David shouts “customers are going to be irate when we don’t deliver the features they want!” He continues, in a heated voice, to complain that they’re not meeting customer needs.

As Laura lets him go on, she feels her own anger rising. He’s blaming her as the team leader, but she tried her best to get the increase. Her boss berated her for even requesting it, and she already feels beat up. The last thing she needs is criticism from David, and she fights the urge to tell him to shut up and get out. But she lets him finish, and when he finally does, she tells him she understands his frustration and she’s frustrated too. She sees him soften a little and start to calm down.

She explains why the company can’t afford to invest more in web development, and David eventually gives a little nod of understanding. He tells her he feels personally responsible when competitors beat them to the punch with new features. They agree to get the team together to brainstorm on how to get the most out of the funding they have. They’re both still a bit tense when David leaves her cube, but at least the intense anger has dissipated and they’re moving forward positively.

Was Laura wise to let an employee shout at her like that? Did it really produce anything useful?

Negative emotions arise to warn us that there’s something we need to deal with. When a threat appears in our environment, negative emotion alerts us of its existence and sparks adaptive action that allows us to resolve it. In short, emotion is the experiential connection between the problem and its solution. Between employee cynicism and employee engagement lies anger. Between a competitive threat and the generation of new capabilities lies anxiety. It’s a form of suicide to repress negative emotions in a team.

David’s concern was real. Laura knew customers wanted more web features, but his emotional outburst made the problem a higher priority. She couldn’t ignore it, and it prompted the team to do everything possible to address the concern. If David had repressed his anger, the team would have heard only half of the message.

When a team member is able to express even the most intense negative emotions, it can help the team’s performance. A team performs best when its members’ emotions are aroused, not too relaxed or laid back. A team’s emotional energy can easily become dull and flat over time, and the emergence and expression of a fear can provide the spark that moves them from lifeless to alert. After the team heard David’s fear-driven passion, they became more attentive to customer needs, and they won’t likely fall back into complacency any time soon.

The best team performance requires that emotions are positive instead of negative. Anger and frustration are an impediment to performance, and they don’t go away when we repress them.  Often all it takes is expressing the negativity and then we’re able to let it go. We’re able to regain access to our full cognitive abilities, which means the action that comes next will be far more effective.

Giving David the okay to shout got the team stoked up, and it helped dissipate his anger. If Laura had squelched his outburst or become too uncomfortable to bear it, he would have become angrier and probably taken it somewhere else, perhaps venting behind closed doors to his team-mates. Or he could have kept it bottled up, slowly eating away at his passion.

When an emotion is processed to completion, a heightened energy and vitality arise, as when you’ve finally been freed from a debilitating burden. It allows the release of enormous energy. It reminds me of when I go backpacking, carrying twenty-five pounds on my back while I trudge along a steep trail for miles. When I finally get to the destination and remove my pack, I feel like I can fly. If I had never carried the weight or had never been able to drop it, I’d never have the invigorating feeling of flying.

Expressing intense emotion helps us understand the source of the emotion in a new way, granting access to new information – about ourselves and the situation – that was not accessible prior to the full experience of the emotion. David’s outburst helped Laura understand how important the web site really is to him. Among other things, she’ll probably make sure that in the future he hears about any funding issues from her directly.

I think expressing anger (and other negative emotion) does benefit a team, but the team should have a prior agreement that makes it okay, and there should be a few stipulations such as expressing with the intention of moving the team or organization forward. What do you think?

As we learn more from neuroscience about the incredible power of group emotions, we see reasons to adopt techniques beyond the ordinary. For more on shaping team emotions to increase creativity and performance, get notified of the upcoming book Primal Teams: Harnessing the Incredible Power of Group Energy or sign up for a monthly summary of articles.


About the Author:

Jackie Barretta is a thought leader sharing ideas on how to create a more just and peaceful world. She is also a CIO, and in this role she has led large organizations with hundreds of employees through challenging times and major transformations.
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  1. Robert Shumate  March 11, 2013

    I believe that it is certainly possible to express anger in a rational way. Without emotion, passion is difficult to exude. Emotions become debilitating only when they run counter-productive to the goals of the group/team.

  2. Glen Fahs  March 13, 2013

    Maybe others would label expression of anger petulance, bullying or a prelude to violence. In my 30’s I tried to be open about my frustration by venting 30 seconds or so and others seemed offended, disturbed or scared even though we had strong relationships. So I paid a heavy cost. Learned keeping 100 percent calm outside the family was the way to go. I find such expressions that are not accusatory build my trust and show trust but people’s early experiences come into play.

  3. Tom Cox  March 13, 2013

    Expressing or ‘acting out’ anger is different from feeling anger. I can express my anger in a responsible way that is not denial, is not ‘stuffing’ it, and also doesn’t make someone else wrong or scared.

    Anger about the work is different from anger about a person. I can be angry about the work (“we did it wrong”) and my trusted/trusting co-worker might sympathize, as she is not threatened. When I shift to anger aimed at a person (“you did it wrong and are therefore bad”) then it is much likelier to be received as threatening.

    All anger comes from the fight-or-flight instinct — the amygdala is the active part of the brain. When my feeling of anger becomes a threatening expression of poorly controlled anger, it can spark defensiveness and harm team trust and team functioning.

    When my feeling of anger becomes a shared expression of our group’s frustration, it can perhaps sometimes lead to increased bonding.

    The key variables are:

    1. Is the anger aimed at a PERSON or at WORK?
    2. Is the anger expressed responsibly or irresponsibly (i.e. I seem out of control)?
    3. Is there already a high level of trust between us?

    If there is high trust, and I’m angry about work product (not aimed at another individual), and I’m sharing my feeling in a responsible way, then we’re okay.

    If any of the three variables are off, I’m going to harm the team dynamic, every time.

    For more on this, see the books “Trust is Everything” and “Conflict Competent Leader”.

  4. Christina Venter  March 13, 2013

    Thank you Jackie. Whether in business or in social interactions differences cause negative emotions that should be voiced in contructive ways. This is a learning curve in the world as a whole integrated system. It would be valuable if this skill can be taught and developed as a standard for all. Meditation and speaking forgiveness out loud before going to sleep helps get rid of the accumulated negative energy. Blowing in out physically has a beneficial longterm effect. If anyone is constantly exposed to autocratic leaders try this for at least 30 days and feel the benefit.

  5. Linda Binns  March 13, 2013

    Jackie, thank you for this thought provoking article. Expressing anger is something that we usually think of as wrong and we feel we need to swallow our anger and not make a scene. I like your point that expressing anger is okay, but a team should have a prior agreement that makes it okay.

    I think the key thing here is to realize that everyone needs to be heard. So in your example, David needed to be heard, he needed to vent. If Laura can give him that outlet and not take what he is saying personally then he is able to let the energy of his anger out, which will ultimately enable him to be more creative and productive. If it were not okay for him to express his anger then this would build inside him, leading to resentment and he would probably take it out not only on his colleagues and perhaps even customers, but he would also take this energy home with him and it would affect his family. When people do this repeatedly then it does, of course, lead to health implications also.

    I think everyone needs to be able to express what they are feeling. If there can be an up-front agreement within teams that makes it okay for people to express what they’re feeling with the knowledge that nobody is going to take it personally then I think it can only be good for everyone and it has positive benefits that go far beyond the workplace.

  6. Paul Hodgetts  April 1, 2013

    I found the article to be pretty good.

    I think in general it is much healthier to have an environment where team members can express what they are feeling, positive or negative. In fact, I think it’s very hard, if not impossible, to have a really high performing team without that kind of environment.

    While I’d agree we’d prefer positive over negative emotions, frankly there aren’t that many projects around that are all blue skies and butterflies, so we’d best learn how to deal with negative emotions in teams, and then harness that energy into continuous improvement (which it seems they did in the article).

    A professional team environment with professional relationships seems different than a personal relationship, and I think that would place different constraints around the ways we would express emotions. But that’s not the same as avoiding or inhibiting that expression, just that my wife and I would likely have a different type of discussion than I would have with a team member at work. I think this is where the “rawness” of the emotion might need to be dialed down in a professional environment. For example, there are very real workplace legal liability issues that have to be considered.

    It seems to me that for a team member to get to the point of anger, other less volatile emotions like frustration or disappointment would have had to been left unresolved. While I would want to express and resolve the anger in a healthy way, I would also want to circle back with the team and figure out how it got to that point and what we could do to resolve the less volatile emotions before they grew to anger.

    I do not feel that violence against another team member is ever acceptable. To me, yelling at another team member is a verbal attack. There are healthier ways to express even anger without resorting to verbal violence. I’m not psychologist or therapist so I’m not an expert in recommending what to do here, but I’m sure there must be other ways, and ways we can coach team members to better express themselves.

    In the article, it seems to me that David handled his anger inappropriately, and frankly in an immature way. My 5 year old niece acts that way, but I expect more mature behavior from professional teammates. I think he could have approached Laura with some respect, and entered into a conversation with her about why they weren’t getting the budget rather yelling and waving arms. If I was Laura, I would approach David some time later and have a conversation about my disappointment with the way he treated me.

  7. Yves Hanoulle (@YvesHanoulle)  April 8, 2013

    I fully agree that people should have a way to express they anger at work.
    People that say, “you are too emotional” are in most cases not emotional enough themselves.

    And in companies where emotions are not allowed this kind of outburst will happen more often (yet not with the same effect as in this story)

    I personally prefer to introduce techniqes like “check-in”, which is for me a way to allow emotions in a less threatening way.

    It is important when introducing techniques like this, to stress that all four emotions (mad, glad, sad, afraid ) are good.


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