By Dan Gerdes, Ph.D.
I don’t know of anyone who never gets angry. Psychologists tell us that anger is one of the four core human emotions out of which the others are derived. Yet managing anger is one of the most challenging things for many people to do, especially those who depend heavily on others in a team or organizational setting.
Why is it so challenging? Because people are imperfect, producing behaviors and attitudes that test the limits of patience, self-control and humility. Imperfections create pain, and no one likes to experience pain or frustration as a result of someone else’s actions or attitudes.
I’m even reminded of situations where I get angry when no one else is involved but me – like when I’m playing golf. Watching someone else’s ball go into the trees is no problem, but when the ball is mine, having come off the club that I was swinging, it’s ironic how quickly the sense of anger and indignation begins to percolate. Like a volcano sending out earthquake tremors just before it blows, anger can simmer below the surface even as I try to wear a smile. And the more I try to mask my frustration, the worse my golf game goes. The anger becomes a distraction that cripples my ability to enjoy what I’m doing, who I’m doing it with and the time I get away from the demands of the office. So now the choice: Either I will manage the anger or the anger will manage me.
Part of the answer is in maintaining the right perspective. I heard of a businessman playing golf with Tiger Woods in a pro-am event. In his desire to impress Tiger as a golfer with some proficiency, and in a feeble attempt to keep from embarrassing himself, the man tried exceedingly hard to hit not just good shots, but perfect ones. Foolishly, he was trying to keep up with Tiger instead of just being himself.
As you might imagine, the amateur player just kept getting more and more frustrated, reaching the point where he hit a poor shot that sliced way off line and he threw his club to the ground in anger and disgust. Tiger looked over at his indignant and frustrated playing partner and simply said, “Relax. You’re not that good to get that mad.” A little humble pie served up from one of golf’s greats established the correct perspective.
Along with keeping perspective, I’m reminded of the importance to simply stay in the moment. Working through a problem is superior to emoting all over it. It’s OK to emote, but don’t build a home in it. Remind yourself to stay in the moment and work the problem. The movie Apollo 13 is a great illustration in which the crew in the spacecraft resisted the temptation to get angry at the circumstances or each other and work the problem. Part of their spaceship had been damaged in an explosion, clearly something they had not signed-up for when they left Earth. Angering over it would do them no good, for they would still be 200,000 miles from home in their precarious circumstance. Either they would calmly and deliberately work the problem or the magnitude of the problem would work them into a panicked frenzy, and their life-raft capsule would become their deep-space tomb. The need for action in the moment eclipsed the need for emotion that could distract from the urgent task at hand.
Have you ever realized that the moment of anger is also a great opportunity for compassion?
I was coaching my son’s third-grade basketball team in a league in which we were entirely over-matched. Playing against other third-grade teams that played virtually year-round in a larger city, my team was still attempting to get a handle on the fundamentals while the teams we played against were running structured offense – in third grade!
I am so thankful for the wisdom one of my assistant coaches uttered during a time-out in which I could barely see straight in my frustration…”Remember,” he said, “learning in progress.” “Learning in progress” is an awesome reminder that the process of becoming better is a journey that sometimes is hard and frustrating. And in those moments of struggle, powerful lessons are learned that become the foundation for greater levels of achievement, for both the leaders and the performers. It’s OK to get angry, but managing it well means that we use it wisely before it uses us. Be compassionate, and remind yourself it’s not about perfection, but rather “learning in progress.”
About the Author: Dan Gerdes, Ph.D., is a professor at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg, Missouri. He specializes in sport psychology and is the author of two books.