They don’t understand their anger. “In a culture where it’s easy to fire of a snippy e-mail or text,” reported Elizabeth Bernstein in her Wall Street Journal column ‘Friendly Fight: A Smarter Say to Say I’m Angry,’ “most of have a hard time honestly expressing anger face to face. If someone upsets us, often we shout, stomp off, roll our eyes, refuse to speak to the person or complain to everyone else. Or we kid ourselves that we aren’t upset and subconsciously fume – until one day we explode over the seemingly littlest thing.” And no one likes to be on the receiving end of explosive anger.
Sound familiar? I bet it does. In the research I conducted for my book, 60% of all Americans reported seeing their boss get angry with someone on the job during the past year. And yet, none of us are ever taught how to deal with managing our anger or how to deal with others.
Anger is a biologically driven response to threat. When threatened, we release the hormone epinephrine, followed by norepinephrine (noradrenaline), prepping the body to react – increasing our heart rate and blood pressure, and narrowing our focus as we prepare to flight or flee. And this is what is at the crux of the issue for modern homo sapiens in the workplace: pretty much as they did 200,000 years ago, our bodies continue to automatically process psychological threats as physical threats. Deep inside we are all irredeemably very old school. But the reality is that reacting to a psychological threat with a physical response is wildly inappropriate. And this disconnect – this evolutionary lag in the development of more emotionally calibrated or sophisticated responses to psychological challenges – is a huge contributor to what makes navigating modern life so incredibly hard. As the economist Terry Burnham, the author of Mean Markets and Lizard Brains: How to Profit From the New Science of Irrationality, put it, “The caricature view would be, the caveman wins the battle, has more babies, crushes his enemies, then puts on a suit 10,000 years later and goes into a boardroom and still wants to crush his enemies.”
To be effective at work we need to learn how to handle this evolutionary gap in responding to non-physical threat. I have created many tools to aid us in developing this challenging skill and one of the best is something I call DING. Which relates to the concept of self-reflection or meta-cognition, which I’ll address in another post.