Innovating with purposeful anger

Anger is a negative and unproductive emotion. It only makes sense to root it out of any sensible organization. Or does it really?

Many people and companies wish to innovate to survive in our fast-evolving world. Often enough the problem is how do we start, where can we get inspiration, what can drive our innovation, entrepreneurial or intrapreneurial spirit. Of course, there is not just one answer to these questions. But one angle that is not often explored is emotions. How about innovating with purposeful anger?

Emotions are not well understood, have become a taboo in companies, look messy and intangible, and most of the time showing emotion is seen as a weakness. To be fair, it is true that the consequences of badly managed emotions can be disruptive or even destructive for performance and work relationships.

purposeful anger - merkaptIn my 2014 TEDx Talk on emotions at work, I had explored the masks we are wearing at work that hide our emotions but most importantly how we are not able to use emotions as a resource.

To see how an emotion can be a resource, let’s first understand better how it works and explore the mechanics of anger for example.

The emotion is not the behaviour

First, let’s distinguish between the emotion we feel from the behaviour we demonstrate. Indeed, the emotion is the chemical reaction that happens in our body following a trigger and that we experience in our body in the form of hot flushes, rush of energy, heart racing, etc. mostly in our upper body. And the behaviours we show might be nothing (a very contained anger) to a full blown violent rage, and in between we can observe some shouting, gesticulating, insults, non-verbal signs of irritations, etc.

dalai lama

These behaviours can indeed be non-productive, but it doesn’t mean the underlying anger is useless. To understand better the purpose of anger let’s look at what triggers it.

The key is in the trigger

Why do we get angry? What sometimes triggers such violent outbursts? Is this complete irrational craziness or is there something of value to it?

There are two main triggers to anger: perceived injustice and obstacle to your desires. The former is deeply rooted in our values, what we have learned to accept as right and wrong, based on our education, culture, environment, life experiences, etc. everything that has built our belief and value systems.

To make it more concrete let’s take an example. You observe how big pharmaceuticals companies are spending their R&D and feel angry at the fact that they tend to avoid research on orphan diseases because it is not a profitable market. Now you may be angry at that in principle; it is not fair, but chances are if you are really  angry it may be because a member of your family is suffering from one of those diseases, which makes it even more unfair to you.

The latter trigger to anger is our ego and our desires to get something or go somewhere, anything or anyone blocking our path is seen as an obstacle and hence can become the cause of our anger.

This is often observed in children who have not yet developed self-control on their desires. But we experience it at work: say you want your teams to take more initiative and be more autonomous so you can focus on more strategic added value tasks. And you observe, once again, that they did not focus on the top priorities nor on the high added value tasks. Now they might have good rational reasons for their choices, but still, you feel frustrated as they become in your eyes an obstacle to the implementation of the company’s vision.

Now understanding what triggers anger is not enough to understand why we experience that emotion or more to the point what is the use of feeling that emotion?

What’s the point?

Do you think that after so many years of evolutions we would have kept such mechanisms in place if there wasn’t a use for it? To understand the purpose, let’s retro-engineer the thing.

Fact n°1: Anger gives you energy in the form of strength, motivation, and perseverance. Physically you might feel hot, bigger, and get tunnel vision. If wrongly channeled, it can indeed transform into violent behaviours.

Fact n°2: Anger is triggered by a perceived obstacle or injustice. Basically, you want to change the situation to remove a problem out of the way and restore equilibrium.

Be angry, change the world

Now consider how useful having this extra strength, motivation and perseverance can be when you want to change something.

martin luther kingIt took many angry people to abolish slavery, many fights that required strength physically and emotionally, many motivated efforts over time and a lot of perseverance in the face of resistance and adversities. Slavery was not abolished by a bunch of laid back people who kind of thought “oh yes by the way that is not good”.

NO, it required a lot of anger: “THIS IS NOT FAIR”, “We MUST do something to change it”…

And again, here let’s remind ourselves that being angry doesn’t mean being violent. Think of all the world changers who did not fight with their fists but with their patient, perseverant, influential presence and speech.

Innovating with purposeful anger

So what does this understanding bring to your life at the office and better still how can this be useful for innovation?

Anger is the one emotion that will give you the resilience (energy, perseverance, motivation, even in the face of obstacles) to bring about a new order that you perceive to be fairer, or that solves a problem that you are concerned or feel close to. Most entrepreneurs create a solution to a problem they are sensitive to; for which they are fed up to see that nobody is bringing a decent response to; or want to bring Added Value to a market they have been part of or includes people they are connected to.

A typical example is Uber’s future founders being in Paris and not finding a taxi whilst having a phone in their pocket.

The emotion (and in this case frustration, a mild form of anger) is driving the entrepreneurial behaviour.  Of course, it is all a matter of balance, if fear is much higher than anger then the likelihood of startup launch becomes much much lower. Frustration with the subject will be annoying until either someone else solves the initial problem or you make peace with it and let it go.

To bring transformative change to a market by creating a startup or in a large multinational by leading an innovative project, you will need the perseverance of anger to survive through the multiple obstacles, the political resistance and the troughs of despair. Then when people start to engage with you, when sponsors are backing you, when customers are giving you encouraging feedback… a bit of joy will go a long way too to lighten the load, keep your hopes up and reassure you that it is possible.

Try it

One of the very interesting tools using anger as a driver to innovate is the “You Got Fired!” game.

Get a bunch of managers in a business unit and role-play that their whole team is fired. Indicate also that as a cockup from legal their non-compete clause isn't applicable. Then, give them an hour to build a competitor startup that will take revenge on their company on a "That'll teach them!" mode.

Watch what happens when people are fueled by purposeful anger and given somehow the means to act upon it in a constructive way…

Author: Stéphanie

Stéphanie has developed an extensive practice of executive coaching in London for more than 10 years. She now coaches CEOs and top executives to help them with team creation and development as well as business agility. She is one the few European expert both implementing and doing research on mentoring programmes.

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