How Do You Express Anger to Employees?

Is there a way you can express anger to employees without alienating them, or doing irreparable damage to the manager-employee relationship?

Even the word, “angry,” is frightening to hear from a boss. When I was a young writer, in my first job—a part-time job as a writer and photographer for a local newspaper—my boss told me she was “disappointed” to hear that I had worn casual clothing to interview a prominent member of the community, and I’m embarrassed to say that I cried about it on the drive home that day. I was frustrated that she was “disappointed” in me, especially since, ironically, I had experienced a great rapport with the person I had interviewed, and I felt she had been left with a favorable impression of me. My boss’ disappointment felt unjust.

Now, consider how it feels to be yelled at, or even berated, by a boss. I thought about this last week after I saw a news flash on my phone from The New York Times that said: “Jeff Sessions was berated by the president in May over the special counsel. He told others it was the most humiliating ordeal of his career.”

I was struck at the powerful impact anger, and a dressing-down, from a powerful boss can have on even an experienced professional who doesn’t seem that sensitive. Granted, it was the President who was dressing him down, but still, I bet the feelings are the same any time a powerful boss communicates anger and disappointment to you.

Is there a way managers should be taught to express anger? Are anger and disappointment OK emotions to communicate to employees, or is it best to avoid communicating emotion at all to employees? Is it preferable to just focus on what was done incorrectly (or what the boss believes was done incorrectly), and what should be done differently next time?

My instinct as a manager would be to try to suppress my emotions, and focus on the error I felt was made, and then explaining carefully what should have been done instead to avoid it happening again. If I were really concerned, I might then let the employee know what the repercussions would be if it did happen again.

It’s best to be practical in communication with employees, with actions, versus emotions, expressed. A venting session targeting an employee who made a mistake seems self-indulgent and unproductive. What do you think?

I can easily see the counter-argument. I’m an emotional person, and maybe it isn’t psychologically healthy for me to constantly suppress my feelings. Suppressing emotions could lead to passive-aggressive behavior in which you do immature things, such as leaving the employee you’re angry at out of work-related social gatherings, or making snide comments under your breath. I haven’t done either of those things, in case you’re wondering, but I have been guilty of other kinds of passive-aggressive actions, which may have been avoided by directly saying to a co-worker (or other acquaintance): “I want to be honest with you: What you did really made me angry. It caused me a lot of extra work and time, and it’s especially irritating to me because I specifically asked you not to do it the way you did. In the future, please listen to me when I give you careful instructions. When you ignore what I’ve asked you do, and do it your own way, it creates more work for everyone else. It’s inconsiderate and unprofessional.”

If I said all that in a calm, but firm, tone, would it be OK?

A key to being respectful in expressing anger is doing so in a private setting with an employee, rather than in an open area where all of that person’s co-workers can overhear him or her getting dressed down. Coincidentally, that same former boss who expressed disappointment in me had a more serious anger-related run-in with a friend of mine. Years ago, my friend worked under her at a large newspaper, where she was managing editor. It was election night, a stressful time at a newspaper that covers politics, and my friend made a mistake. Instead of taking her aside, or into a private room, my (and her) former boss berated her in public, so the whole newsroom could hear. She was a woman in her thirties at the time, and it made her cry.

Do you have programs in your manager and leadership development programs that guide supervisors in communicating anger? It’s a natural emotion, even to accomplished bosses, and mishandling it could lead to employee who become so alienated they are not able to do their work, or it could even lead to a swift job search for a more even-tempered boss.

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