Anger management: harnessing aggression as a force for good

25 September 2015 -


Chelsea striker Diego Costa will be missing this weekend’s action because of his overly aggressive nature, but business superstars such as Apple’s Steve Jobs have used their aggression to drive teams on to new levels of success. Here Insights looks at how anger can be used as a force to drive businesses forward

Jermaine Haughton

The niggling, shoving and provoking by Chelsea footballer Diego Costa played a vital role in earning his team a crucial victory over London rivals Arsenal last weekend, but drew criticism from fans, pundits and ultimately the Football Association, which banned the Spanish striker for three matches.

While critics of Costa’s style point to his lack of sportsmanship, the Spanish international has turned his intense approach to football into a tactic to unsettle opponents and create advantages for himself and his team. He uses this to such effect that his aggressive style of harassing and pestering his opponents has now become a trademark facet of this play.

He isn’t the first either; star players such as Wayne Rooney and Luis Suarez are both well known to harbour Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde personalities. Arguably the greatest football manager ever, Sir Alex Ferguson is also characterised by his “hairdryer treatment” and strict management of his players.

Similarly, the most famous boardroom angry man is probably the late Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple. Despite coming across as pensive and thoughtful in public, a number of former employees have spoken of his brooding nature, prone to mood swings and often voicing his displeasure very loudly.

However, biographer Walter Isaacson wrote that “dozens of the colleagues whom Jobs most abused ended their litany of horror stories by saying that he got them to do things they never dreamed possible” such as create the ground-breaking iPhone.

In each of the above cases, the removal of that anger would arguably take much away from the burning passion that has fired them to the heights of their profession.

In fact, research in the journal Human Relations shows that more than two-thirds of emotionally negative events actually lead to a positive outcome; the conclusion being that office rows can be treated as open discussion and reveal workplace issues that need to be solved.

But there is a fine line between effective aggression that motivates employees and distracts competitors compared to temper tantrums that stir up ill-feeling and stress for all involved.

Psychologist Robert Hogan says managerial outbursts almost always have a short-term, immediate benefit, pushing the subject to work harder on a project or complete a task quicker. However, Hogan added that in the longer-term, a consistently verbally abusive environment eventually alienates and stresses out many workers, killing team-building.

Workplace policies should be in place, and managers should be vigilant for signs that tensions between workers have turned into bullying, discrimination and, even, violence. 

In cases whereby workers display an aggressive and negative attitude, it is difficult for employers to address those issues with disciplinary action, as it can be subjective. What may be negative to one person, may be quite normal to another. However, HR policies can define types of behaviour that are prohibited by workplace rules, as well as remind workers of their responsibilities as the face of the organisation.

In this regard, the key skills for managers are awareness, patience and communication.

The ability to take an informal five to ten minutes with an angry staff member just to discuss how they’re feeling and the source of their displeasure can help build trust with employees, as well as identify how the organisation can help the individual. After all, anger is an emotion, which can arrive from a number of different triggers – from work, to social life to a medical condition.

According to Thomas Stern, president of recruitment firm Stern Executive Search, showing empathy can quickly defuse a stressed and angry worker. “Refusing to enter the world of an angry person is probably the best thing you can do to help them. It’s not easy for one person to stay angry for very long in the presence of someone who refuses to participate,” he said.

“It’s much easier to keep the anger going when you’re by yourself. That’s why angry people have a tendency to storm out of the room if they can’t get you going. Try to prevent that from happening if you can. Then, gently say the following two sentences: “I understand that you’re upset. We’ll talk when you’re feeling better”.”

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