When Anger Strikes: 3 Subtle Ways Work Cultures Turn Negative

08/15/2016 01:00 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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Trigger events such as the U.S. election season give many of us permission to express our anger. As a leader, do we ignore them, and hope these polarizing feelings are just temporary? Is political upheaval truly the cause of this wave of anger, or an excuse?

It may be difficult to know the answers. However, if we choose to ignore these behaviors, it's just a matter of time until it decimates an otherwise productive and healthy workplace.

This slow trickle of negativity appears in different forms. For example, it might perpetuate indecision for important initiatives. In other instances, it provides fodder for online trolls. Last month, for example, a woman whom I've never met voluntarily completed our annual CMO survey. In the "comments" sections, she wrote a string of negative, sarcastic comments.

Effective leaders show zero tolerance for these nefarious behaviors. This is not a matter of asking HR to update the procedures manual. Zero tolerance begins with how we carry ourselves, and addressing the behaviors as soon as they surface.

Here are three places negativity festers:

Combative language.

Are our words inciting, fighting or delighting? Draining or energizing?

When I attend conferences, for example, many speakers share military and male sports metaphors and expect to inspire audiences. They often have the reverse effect.

During company kickoff meetings, some leaders perpetuate anger- and angst-producing messages about "defeating Company X," "hitting a home run," and "killing the competition." I fell into that habit earlier in my career as a Marketing Programs Manager at BMC Software. We treated our number one competitor like our nemesis. We would often attack the character of their founder. We missed out on some key learning moments because we never discussed how we might actually learn from their unorthodox sales and marketing strategies.

Our spoken and written word is a reflection of our character. Inspiring language focuses more on an improved condition for our customers and stakeholders. It allows us to paint a picture of a better future, instead of wallowing in how terrible things are, or the flaws in "the rigged system." Election season only amplifies the issue; some politicians and pundits masquerade their fear and loathing behind policy statements and political opinion rife with combative metaphors.

Patagonia's mission statement
kindles curiosity and wonder. On their website, they outline their Reason for Being: "Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis." Founder Yvon Chouinard's 40-year commitment to stewardship of our limited and precious natural resources is reflected in this statement.

Energy draining habits.

Certain media outlets' obsession with "stirring up the negative soup" is another trigger for physical and emotional exhaustion. This affects our teams when we allow unbridled use of social media, texting and email usage during all hours of the work day. We are tacitly encouraging multi-tasking, and removing focus from things we can improve and immediately influence.

To help sustain positive energy in all that you do, recognize that there are three distinct energy fields: Personal Field, Near Field, and Remote Field. The Personal Field is an invisible "bubble" that we carry with us. This field contains our mindset, our body, our health, our spirit and our creativity.

For 23 years, Cathy and Gary Hawk of Clarity International have been teaching leaders how to shift our thinking from thoughts that drain energy to thoughts that energize us by mastering our personal field: "Holding your own personal energy steadily...is the key to creating a vibrant life." We cannot control all aspects of the Near Field (such as relationships, online communities, and work settings) nor the Remote Field (such as economic forces, wars, societal conflict, and natural disasters). But we can make empowering choices about our information consumption, sleep habits, diet, and language.

Seeking revenge or saving face.

While we don't have time in this article to address the consequences for all behaviors protected by law, we can explore our anger towards less egregious infractions, which may include rudeness, name-calling, lying, and gossip.

Martha Nussbaum, author of the just-released Anger and Forgiveness, believes that our society often focuses on both payback and punishment to satisfy our desire to protect our social rank. These are age-old strategies for retaliating. Nussbaum, however, suggests a different approach: "If she is rational...she can turn to the future and focus on (being) really helpful. This may well include the punishment of the wrongdoer (as in the case of legal, moral, or ethical infractions), but in a spirit that is deterrent rather than retaliatory."

Imagine how that approach might play out in a team meeting, where a shouting match might occur. What might be the best and most immediate response? What actions might you take to immediately discourage future infractions? Transmuting our anger begins with momentarily stepping back from a situation, practicing non-judgmental awareness, and using that conflict as a learning moment for everyone concerned.

During World War II, Gandhi said "We must look the world in the face with calm and clear eyes even though the eyes of the world are bloodshot today." We certainly cannot stop the message maelstrom. But we can manage how we comport ourselves.

Copyright 2016, Lisa Nirell. All rights reserved.