In one of the management courses I got drawn, the facilitator asked two groups of people how they would react to a negative performance appraisal. The groups were divided following a fairly simple and general personality test. While one group clearly stated the overarching reaction would be disappointment and sorrow, the other group claimed it would first try to understand why the performance appraisal was negative and if it found no demonstrated evidence of a poor performance, the resulting feeling would defintely be anger. Anger at being incorrectly appraised, even to the point of dismissing the appraisal process and qualifying their appraiser as incompetent, untrustworthy and certainly without any authority. No surprises here.
What happened next caught me totally off guard: the facilitator indicated not only that anger was a very normal reaction but also that this anger could be turned into something positive and constructive. I felt every cell in my body revolt against the idea, while I had in all honesty never given this any thought before. The facilitator saw anger as a source of energy, a sign of self-respect, an individual right, even to the point of expressing it forcefully, as if to liberate potentially harmful frustration.
I was puzzled by this theory. Anyway, as the day moved on, I kept lingering on this very thought. It has been with me, on and off, for the past three months.
My first thought was that anger just leads to wrath and retribution. It’s the theme of many wars and stories, real or imagined. From the Trojan war narrated by Homer to The Dark Knight filmed by Christopher Nolan. Anger clearly produces heroes, short of being gods. Achilles first refused to fight out of blind wrath after Agamemnon had taken his trophy slave Briseis, only to return to the battlefield after his cherished Patroclus had been killed by Hector. The unfortunate Trojan prince was mercilessly slaughtered and his body disgraced, again out of pure vengeance. Leaping to our timeline, Batman is but a mere evolved version. Just like Achilles he takes the right to punish in his own hands, defying superior powers and laws. Surely this could not be what the facilitator was referring to. What else could it be? Could I not think of a clear example where anger over the last 3,000 years transformed into 100% positive energy?
By lack of historic examples, I tried to remember if anger had ever produced something positive for me or others in my personal life. I could only think of episodes where I was stuck in anger, unable to regain control over my thoughts, life and future. Frankly, anger has never done anything for me. I merely lost time, spiralling downwards in self-destructive thoughts. Only when I put my anger totally aside was I able to get on with life. When I look around me, I see anger destroying relationships, families and happiness. I fail to see anything positive. I cannot help to conclude that anger reduces man’s brain to its reptile component, the place where humans are mere animals, and that it is always the wrong place to be.
Over the past two months, thoughts came and went. The whole question slowly rested in the back of my mind till I stumbled on a tweet commenting on Martha Nussbaum’s view on Anger. She defines it as a normatively faulty response that masks deeper, more difficult emotions and stands in the way of resolving them. Anger creates an illusion of control when we experience none. Anger does nothing to address the real problem, which is something in the past we cannot change. It impedes useful introspection and always makes the relationship with the other person worse. If angry thoughts fill up your mental landscape, you will only consider payback or vengeance in one form or another. While the only real way forward is looking for truth and understanding, certainly in the case of a performance appraisal. Anger can never be the right response.
So, Anger continues for me to be the most unhelpful emotion at work and in life. Next time you’re being denied a correct performance appraisal, and this will happen to most of you, seek to understand, let the truth rule, remember how wrong the facilitator was and don’t let anger take you to a place you don’t know.