Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Anger Management

Some leaders in work or on the sports field (think Roy Keane or Bill Belichick) use anger as a tactic to get people moving, cut out mistakes and improve performance. And whatever you may think of it, it has been known to concentrate minds and get results.

I recently read a paper that put another perspective on this. In the Journal of Applied Psychology, Ella Miron-Spektor looked at how witnessing an angry outburst can dampen lateral thinking and blunt creative solutions.

Miron-Spektor works at the William Davidson Faculty of Industrial Engineering and Management. She got engineering students to imagine being a customer service agent and they were given a written problem to solve. Before working on the problem, they listened to another customer service agent talking to a customer. In some cases this conversation was neutral and well mannered, in other cases it was hostile and had plenty of anger from the caller.

Students who heard the angry call, did better at problems that required analysis and diligence. The anger did focus minds on the task in hand (justifying Keane and Belichicks approach). However, these students performed worse at problems that required lateral or out of the box thinking (the candle problem).

Miron-Spektor then looked at the students emotional state and suggested that witnessing the angry exchange led to people being more defensive. People were keen to avoid punishment or being the target of anger. She felt this could cause them to narrow their focus on the immediate task in hand and get it complete, thereby avoiding anger. This narrowing of focus however closed their mind to broader solutions and hence a dip in performance for lateral thinking.

The takeaway here is that if we want people to think creatively we may need to provide an environment where they feel secure and don’t witness other people on the receiving end of abuse. If you want your software developers to complete their unit test plans, have them sit near the customer service people, if you want them to come up with the next big idea for your product, keep them well away from any conflict zones. 

This ties in with other studies which show that narrowing our focus (
 such as through bonus schemes) kills creativity. In the open office and shared work spaces most of us now have, avoiding angry out bursts might be hard to do. Allowing anger, be that from co-workers or customers, to become part of the office landscape can create a risk adverse culture and blunt our approach to innovation or problem solving. 

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