Anger is one of the most paralyzing emotions. It has the ability to stop us in our tracks. Even when we attempt to cover it up, it’s obvious when anger strikes.
In a work environment there is no outlet for anger. It’s not like sports where you can take the aggression out through force. Instead, anger is boxed into a room like smoke, with no windows for it to escape. It engulfs you. And when it has nowhere to go it begins to feed on you.
Often referred to as ‘frustration,’ anger is prevalent in startups. It may not always be obvious, but the combination of passion, desire, and expectation creates an environment ripe for disappointment.
Looking back, I didn’t realize my own anger until I got fired from Contour. During my time off, anger was the emotion that took me the longest to understand. It was a feeling that I could dismiss on the surface, but deep down it was destroying me.
It wasn’t until my wife suggested meditation that I began to understand. All I knew at the time was that I couldn’t sleep, sit still, or fully enjoy the food I was eating. Even though we were traveling to some of the most amazing places, I wasn’t totally present.
Fast forward to last week when I got a cold taste of reality. I received a letter from a credit card company, claiming that I was personally responsible for the debt that my previous company racked up. Despite being absolved from the company months before it folded, I was pulled back in like a bad dream.
Even though 18 months have passed I instantly felt my body shut down. My ability to create vanished, my communication became short. I wanted to scream at the faceless representative of a company that only wanted to know how quickly I could pay the $50K bill.
My natural instinct was to ignore the feeling. I put my head down and just started working, hoping that would bury reality.
It didn’t work.
But what it did do, was to remind me that you can’t hide from anger. It can dramatically change who you are and how you treat people.
I have experienced various forms of anger as an entrepreneur. Frustration, disappointment, and even expletive-filled, all-engulfing rage. Setbacks can be so paralyzing that all you want to do is scream.
For me, anger shows up in two places: My head and my chest.
In my head, anger turns a crank that fuels the fire to keep thinking about the issue at hand. Whatever unexpected event sparked the flood of emotion, it gets my mind obsessing about the issues and every aspect of what happened. It shuts out everything else as I replay how this occurred, and try to translate what it means. Depending on the level of anger, this process can carry on for minutes, hours, or even days.
Eventually my mind gets tired and replaces the intense thinking with incessant worry. The more uncertain or detrimental the outcome seems, the more anxious I get.
In my chest, anger pushes everything out. At first it provides an incredible jolt of energy geared toward action. I want to scream, punch, run, or do anything that can express what I am feeling. It’s extremely difficult to sit calmly or speak softly.
The sensation of anger in my chest is obvious when it first shows up, but it becomes insidious over time. The initial energy turns to a dull feeling that dampens everything. Over time, if unaddressed, it can solidify into a heavy brick that sits right in the middle of my chest.
Dealing With It
In the past, I used to ignore any feelings of anger. I would keep working, sticking my head in the sand as if nothing had happened. My attempt to bury the emotion left me exhausted at the end of the day, which only led to sleepless nights as my mind kept turning on the problem.
Everyone has their own form of dealing with anger. Here are some ways I address it.
Space Out Your Schedule
Most entrepreneurs’ schedules look like a mangled mess of meetings. Trying to maximize every minute of the day, they only leave a few minutes between each discussion to take a breath. And most of the interactions cover such a wide array of subjects that it is extremely difficult to really dive in.
When anger strikes, it comes quick. There isn’t time to anticipate the feeling, it just happens. Whether it’s a missed expectation, a change in circumstances, or an unforeseen action by someone else, your mood quickly changes.
Most entrepreneurs try to continue on with their busy schedule; they try to ignore it. They put on their best face for the remainder of the day, but the emotion continues to stir under the surface until late in the evening when they are finally alone. This resolution process doesn’t work. It leads to stress, sleepless nights, and personal struggle.
Doing less, especially meetings, gives you time to step outside and deal with the emotion at hand, which is critical when you understand that your energy is a major part of the culture. Telling yourself that you can pretend nothing is wrong, is a lie.
About a year ago I started using based(http://www.meditationoasis.com/podcast/listen-to-podcast/). Meditation comes in many different forms, but I found voice-based meditation helped me to stay focused during the entire 15-20 minute session.
When I started, it took several weeks to feel the subtlety of different emotions, but by practicing a few minutes everyday I began to understand what anger felt like and how to remove it. As it lodged in my chest I was able to breathe into the heavy block and let it pass through my body.
Once I stopped ignoring the anger and started embracing its energy, I was able to recover much quicker.
I understand that meditation sounds like a waste of time, but it’s not. By meditating, you are taking the best action you can to contribute to your longevity as a leader. Don’t ignore your emotions because you think you are too tough to be bothered.
Don’t Be Passive-Aggressive
You know when something isn’t right. And you know when you miss the opportunity to address it.
Ben Horowitz’s recent book, The Hard Thing About Hard Things, is filled with story after story about making the hard decision. His journey is a terrifying reminder that to be successful as a leader you have to hit conflict straight on with clear, timely, and concise communication.
Passive-aggressive communication allows anger to linger. Especially among a group of highly motivated people. It’s important to address issues as they happen instead of allowing the frustration to build. Even the smallest signs of anger can multiply into a cultural divide.
I was terrible at direct communication as a first-time entrepreneur. It took a lot of practice to get to the point where I felt adequate at handling conflict. Although it’s not yet my strength, I push myself to address the emotions as they happen.
Anger sucks, but if you are leading people it’s a critical emotion to embrace. It can motivate an entire company or tear it apart, one conflict at a time.
*Image Credit: Deiby via Creative Commons