Angry leaders are a problem. Or are they?


Our recent discourses on work culture and leadership seem to point to one fact – that angry bosses are tyrants and that they must be avoided at all costs. At some level, I agree. Few things are as important at the work place as what one of my past employers called “respect for the individual”. Disrespect, name-calling and public shaming in the name of authentic leadership are a big no, for sure. But there are times when situations call for a little tough talk.

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To put it off in the name of political correctness should also be a big no. Eventually, we go to work to get work done, be a team and to collaborate. If the result is not coming through because of lack of vision, execution, or effort from the team, a leader’s discontent is worth everyone’s time. In fact, recent research has also proven that “anger has its own utility at work and can be used for positive outcomes”.

That said, we live in times of reasonably higher emotional quotients. Like everything else at work, there are right and wrong ways to express discontent as a manager or leader. Eventually, it is about channelling anger to enhance performance, your own as well as your team’s.

Evaluate whether your anger is justified and worth expressing

Several situations at work can make you angry but expressing it will just not help. I have an example from personal experience. A few years ago, I had two teammates who just couldn’t see eye to eye on anything. But their personal relationship and how it manifested in conversations unrelated to work had nothing to do with me. It was not a problem I needed to solve. But when it got to a point where their arguments hampered the work at hand and waste everyone’s time, was when I felt the need to jump in. People’s personal traits, relationships and habits have no place in work conversations as long as they don’t impact quality of work. Choose your battles wisely.

Don’t soft-pedal but also choose your words wisely

Political correctness at work often demands that one soft-pedals anything that might express discontentment. But it should be a leader’s job to call a spade a spade. Firmness is essential and you can use careful body language and strong yet factually and politically correct words to express your discontent. But if you disgrace or belittle people through your words, you will either end up alienating your own team or will not be taken seriously. Stay cautious of how far you are willing to go with your language.

Tough talking can ease the gap in expectation and delivery

Let’s get one thing clear – a leader’s expression of discontent or anger can’t be a rant session. It must have a positive outcome. Don’t berate your team. Instead, tell them exactly how they are steering away from the brief and specifically what they need to do to match your expectations.

Often in senior or high performing teams, leaders and managers overestimate how clued-in the team is to their objectives. Even if the answer is obvious, be sure to remind them. Use the conversation to close the gap, not to widen it.

Tomorrow’s another day

As a leader, it is your job to move on from a heated exchange. Only then will your teammates be able to do it too. Check in with them a few hours after the tough talk, appreciate them for hearing you out, answer any questions they may not have asked in the heated moment, and in general, show empathy at the end of a day that has been hard on everyone.

Teams are made up of fallible, emotive human beings. There will be good days and bad. There will be days when the leader’s cup runs over and some when the employee just can’t deliver. In my experience, it is days like these, if done right, that seal the bond between teams more than award wins and shared lunches.

A leader’s anger can either come across as petty and futile or can provoke teams to come together and do better. The answer lies in how this anger is communicated.


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