On Organizational Anger

There is a form of orga­ni­za­tion­al anger that all lead­ers need to under­stand. It is not the hos­tile out­burst of an aggriev­ed staff mem­ber, though this may be a symp­tom just as a shoot­er in a pub­lic place can be a symp­tom of a broad­er social despair. It is not the same as deal­ing with lead­ers who are bul­lies, though again if they are present they are like­ly a symptom.

I am speak­ing of some­thing a lit­tle fur­ther down, lay­ered or embed­ded into the cir­cum­stances of indi­vid­u­als and groups who make up an enter­prise. The untrans­lat­able Kore­an con­cept of han is struc­tural­ly sim­i­lar (although cer­tain­ly not iden­ti­cal or right to appro­pri­ate), both being phe­nom­e­na that are simul­ta­ne­ous­ly psy­cho­log­i­cal and cultural.

Orga­ni­za­tion­al anger can be char­ac­ter­ized as:

• most­ly sub­merged and sup­pressed resentment

• indi­vid­ual vio­la­tions of dig­ni­ty that con­nect to group vio­la­tion experiences

• a sense of pow­er­less­ness to change things

• sad­ness or depres­sion; self-doubt; pas­sive aggression

• a felt loss of iden­ti­ty, per­son­al­ly and organizationally

• a temp­ta­tion of hope for res­o­lu­tion some­day in the dis­tant future


Where does such a thing, this syn­drome, come from? Often the roots are in the nature of how pow­er is expressed through hier­ar­chy. This isn’t to say that we should just get rid of hier­ar­chy. Hier­ar­chy seems to me to be pret­ty much inevitable. It can be done well. It can be done bet­ter, but not with­out lead­ers tak­ing their lead­er­ship skills per­son­al­ly and with a high degree of self-aware­ness. It comes from pat­terns of dom­i­nance of some over oth­ers, the treat­ment and use of peo­ple as objects in order to achieve and main­tain con­trol with­out per­son­al expo­sure or accountability.

Dis­crim­i­na­tion of any kind in orga­ni­za­tions is a pre­mier exam­ple but there are many oth­er types of “dig­ni­ty vio­la­tion,” a term used by Don­na Hicks in her two ele­gant books on dignity. 

The vio­la­tions may be sub­tle or overt. An orga­ni­za­tion that seems to promise trans­paren­cy, but active­ly with­holds key infor­ma­tion from staff who just want to help and who appre­ci­ate the chal­lenges. An orga­ni­za­tion that has gone through unex­plained ter­mi­na­tions of entire­ly com­pe­tent employ­ees but then demands the remain­ing peo­ple speak up about the prob­lems they face in their work. An orga­ni­za­tion com­plet­ing a merg­er that with­out warn­ing sud­den­ly asks key staff to reap­ply for jobs they’ve occu­pied for years. A top orga­ni­za­tion­al tier that seems to rede­fine “being pro­fes­sion­al” and “suc­cess­ful” as pro­mot­ing cer­tain pre­var­i­ca­tions and false promis­es made to key cus­tomers — and an eighty-hour work week to boot.

I used to iden­ti­fy these dynam­ics as cul­tur­al prac­tices relat­ed to embed­ded orga­ni­za­tion­al mis­trust, but mis­trust is real­ly too small a word. Dom­i­nance, priv­i­lege, supe­ri­or­i­ty — those are also words. Dehu­man­iza­tion is a word. And so is out­rage from the uneth­i­cal qual­i­ty of it all.

The real suf­fer­ing is in the lev­el of sup­pres­sion that peo­ple attempt to main­tain in order to keep their jobs and rep­u­ta­tions intact. And we all know the effects of that sup­pres­sion. As Ed Batista says in his bril­liant arti­cle, The Tyran­ny of Feel­ings: “Sup­pres­sion is essen­tial­ly an act of make believe.” And it’s one I would argue we pay for through inter­nal­ized stress, fatigue, cyn­i­cism, loss of judg­ment, sus­cep­ti­bil­i­ty to big emo­tion­al reac­tions and ulti­mate­ly, disengagement. 

So why do you, a leader, need to under­stand all this, since you are more like­ly to be part of the hier­ar­chy a lit­tle high­er up? I sup­pose there are many kinds of answers to this ques­tion, but today let me sug­gest just one: so that you know it when you see it. And see­ing it, you begin to tru­ly lead, which means to stand up to it and to build human rela­tion­ships that quench the fires at their source. Because rela­tion­ships — that thing between you and me that I trust or that I don’t — is key. Some of that rela­tion­ship build­ing may take some courage, but more than courage, I believe, it requires insight and empa­thy for every­one in the sys­tem. It requires the capac­i­ty to under­stand one anoth­er’s true needs, to be advo­cates for one anoth­er, and the will­ing­ness to address what is obvi­ous, unspo­ken or uncon­scious with­out ran­cor or fear. It asks that our ulti­mate desire is to be real with one anoth­er, and yes, to engage that most impor­tant counter-bal­ance of all to anger, which is of course, love.


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