Too good to leave, too bad to stay; the hidden cost of anger at work – and what to do about it

Many of my clients are stuck in a career version of Too Good to Leave, too Bad to Stay (the title of a great book by Mira Kirshenbaum that is actually about relationships). That is, they all too often find themselves enraged by things about work, but feel trapped by the job and unable to find a way out.  Let’s take a composite example; my client Adrienne, who recently spent a good part of our two hour  session telling me how unbearable her work is; an absent – yet apparently massively overpaid – boss, colleagues who don’t pull their weight; an upcoming three day global conference about a business strategy everyone knew was a waste both of time and Airmiles,  and on and on.

We did some good coaching around feelings and actions. But close to the end of the session, she put on a grown up face and said: “I just need to get a grip”.

Now, I’m a big fan of getting a grip. But getting a grip is not a viable long term strategy. At worst it can make you ill. At best it will make you grumpy. In particular, it can limit the way that you allow yourself to express your feelings both to yourself and to others. For many people, this feels too dangerous. This may be because of early experience of being unsafe around one or both parents’ anger, or for some other reason. And/or it may be because they are uncomfortable with having those feelings in the first place. In particular, people who see themselves as amiable, easy going, Miss Nice,  etc may find the quetching, grumpy, enraged (pick your own descriptor and remember that it is likely to be on some kind of continuum) part of themselves difficult to acknowledge.  So they bring their irritation, anger, rage, to coaching. Which allows them to ‘vent’ and get clearer about their thoughts and feelings.

Which is great. And that is a valuable role for a coach to fulfil. Yet the real shift is to learn how to experience, process and then express those emotions, thoughts and feelings openly to colleagues in a way that allows you more fully to inhabit your life.

But before looking at what you can do about anger, it’s worth asking why it’s an issue. Three reasons (and not an exhaustive list). Firstly, suppressing anger takes energy. And energy will always be in short supply in today’s corporate environment. Particularly if you are, like Adrienne, someone who at one level doesn’t believe you really are angry, or really are ‘entitled’ to be angry (perhaps because it conflicts with you sense of who you are),  you may dismiss the idea. Secondly, suppressing anger takes away the energising potential that anger affords. Finally,  and this is perhaps most relevant in the coaching context – getting more comfortable with anger can help you to become more authoritative and effective as a leader. In particular, it can help you to deal more effectively with the difficult relationship that are pretty much a given in any workplace nowadays.

Which brings us to what you can do about it.  Clearly, the first step is to recognise it. And that is huge, particularly in our culture. I was in therapy for four years before I acknowledged that I was even a tiny bit cross. Hopefully most people will get there sooner than I did. Another approach is to track the feelings, particularly at work, using a simple three column grid showing “What happened”; “What I felt”; “What I said”. Take a note over a week of any patterns and think about what you would like to have said.  

A third technique is to map anger on a spectrum that shows what extremes of anger look like to you. For example: “Cold and controlled” at one end and “Angry and out of control” at the other. Map where you see yourself on that spectrum then explore where you would like to be, adding descriptors to that position. Then think about real situations you are facing and reflect on what specific things – if you were at that new position – you might do or say differently.  None of which requires you to follow Peter Finch’s advice (in the 1976 classic film, ‘Network’ (image above).  Rather that you think more skilfully about how you can harness the energy of anger, and use it to make sure that you get heard – without having to go to the window and shout “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more”. Unless, of course, you want to.