Much of my work as a coach involves helping leaders deescalate conflicts, find win-win solutions, and turn adversaries into allies. This is almost always a more fruitful path than turning up the heat on a confrontation and provoking a fight.
The key word there is almost, because if we always put harmony first and never engage in conflict, then we fail to exercise some important skills that don't get worked at other times. When we encounter adversaries who are more comfortable with conflict than we are, they'll be more effective at extracting concessions before reaching agreement. And when we run into an actual enemy--someone whose interests are implacably opposed to ours, or who's acting in bad faith and can't be trusted--efforts on our part to find common ground may be perceived as weakness and exploited to our disadvantage.
And while the anger we typically experience in the midst of an fight can be counterproductive, that's not always the case. Jennifer Lerner of Harvard's Kennedy School and my former Stanford colleague Lara Tiedens--now president of Scripps College--discuss the complex effects of anger in a fascinating 2006 paper. For example, Lerner and Tiedens note that while people with angry facial expressions are perceived as threatening, they're also perceived as competent, powerful, and dominant. The March 2008 issue of Harvard's Negotiation newsletter offers a thoughtful summary of Lerner and Tiedens' findings:
Angry individuals approach situations with confidence, a sense of control, and negative thoughts about others. In negotiation, these appraisal tendencies can trigger overconfidence, unrealistic optimism, and aggression, yet they buffer decision makers from indecision, risk aversion, and overanalysis... In addition, anger can motivate us to stand up for ourselves and others in the face of injustice.
By no means am I suggesting that we pick fights for the hell of it or yield to anger indiscriminately--that approach carries significant costs, as Lerner and Tiedens make clear. In addition to the risks cited above, anger also heightens prejudices, narrows the range of possibilities when considering others' motives, and diminishes our ability to assess the quality of information. As Lerner and Tiedens write, "Angry people engage in relatively automatic, superficial, and heuristic processes. That is, they rely on readily available general knowledge structures."
In many--and perhaps most--circumstances the rapid reflexes, loss of creative power, and reluctance to consider new information that accompany anger make it more difficult to accomplish our goals. But at times those traits are outweighed by the optimism, confidence, and feelings of control and power that also come along for the ride when we get pissed off.
So when is anger useful? When we're in a fight, according to a 2008 paper by Maya Tamir and Christopher Mitchell of Boston College and James Gross of Stanford:
Individuals are sometimes motivated to increase their anger before engaging in confrontational tasks, despite the fact that such activities are less pleasant than alternative ones. [T]hese emotional preferences were, in fact, associated with instrumental benefits in confrontational contexts. Angry (vs. excited) participants performed better in a confrontational task.
Again and to be very clear: I'm in no way suggesting that we give free rein to our anger or that we approach the world spoiling for a fight. One of my personal mantras is this brilliant advice from W.C. Fields: "I don't have to attend every argument I'm invited to." I've been heavily influenced by the work of John Gottman, one of the world's leading researchers on relationships, and he's found that when the most successful married couples fight, they do so with a minimum of anger and drama. And a core principle of my approach to coaching and teaching is the importance of maintaining our equanimity in the face of perceived threats.
But all that said, sometimes fights have a way of finding us, and sometimes angry people show up uninvited and refuse to leave, and sometimes the circumstances simply dictate a zero-sum struggle. And if we're unable to deescalate the conflict, unable to find a win-win solution, and unable to turn adversaries into allies, then a successful outcome may depend on our ability to step into the conflict and make effective use of our anger.
This requires us to tap into and feel the emotion while managing its outward expression--we have to dial it up to just the right level without going too far. Easy to say, and very hard to do in the moment, which brings me full circle: If we always avoid a fight, we never learn how to have a good one.
Thanks to Stephanie West Allen for two long-ago blog posts that originally led me to this research: Anger--your inner fiend or your friend? and Grit your teeth and bear it: Get angry for all the right reasons.
Photo by Leonid Mamchenkov. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.