When Anger and Outrage Are Useful Emotions
Many of my female coaching clients are told in their performance feedback that they need to be “less emotional” and to “smile more.” This feedback occurs so often that my colleagues and I joke about it when we talk about the unfair feedback that our female clients receive.
We often reflect together on the ways that men can express anger in the workplace, but women cannot. Men can bang their fists on the table or yell and they are seen by many as strong and passionate. By contrast, men expect women to be nice and subdued. This is even more of a problem for black women and men who are seen as militant, dangerous, or threatening when they express anger. White women are not seen as threatening or dangerous, but they do make many men uncomfortable when they get angry because they are not conforming to stereotypes of femininity. Unfortunately, these uncomfortable men are sometimes the bosses who give women lower performance ratings and tell them to smile more.
Roxane Gay of the New York Times points out how these double standards in expressing anger played out in our last presidential campaign. Bernie Sanders reveled in his anger, “often wagging his finger and raising his voice.” He was seen as passionate and engaged. Donald Trump emerged as the angriest candidate from a large group of angry Republican contenders in the primary. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, had to play by different rules. She could not raise her voice and was attacked as a “nasty woman” by Trump when she asserted strong positions. During her years in public life, she learned to smile a lot while demurely expressing strong opinions—because she had to.
More recently, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell demanded that Senator Elizabeth Warren sit down and stop talking in the Senate when she tried to read a letter expressing strong objections to the confirmation of Jeff Sessions to be attorney general. The next day, four men took turns reading the same angry letter without being told to stop talking.
Anger is a natural human emotion. Not only is it healthy to express anger, it can also be useful. There are, of course, damaging, violent, and unproductive ways to express anger. I am not advocating for any of those modes of expression, such as destroying property, causing injury to self or others, or name calling that shuts down opportunities for dialogue.
Anger can be functional and constructive. Anger is functional when it gives us the energy we need to take an action to right a wrong done to another, to have a difficult conversation, or to stand up for ourselves. Anger can give us the energy to join with others to insist on changes in our organization or community.
Anger is fueling a lot of rallies and political action in our country these days. Leaders need to listen when people are angry. Angry people are trying to express strong feelings that deserve to be heard about issues that they care deeply about.
In my social justice workshops, I encourage people to tune in to the world around them and find their sense of outrage, or anger, about injustices in society. It is easy to become numb to the things going on around us, to tune them out and sit on the sidelines. We are all busy. Outrage gives us energy to take action.
Where is your outrage? What helps you mobilize yourself to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem?