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Growth Strategies

The Esquire Guy on Not Losing Your Cool

min read

This story appears in the November 2013 issue of . Subscribe »

The Anger Games
Illustration by Chris Philpot

Key Technical Matters:

Silence! ...Not them. You.

The only thing more terrifying than getting yelled at by a superior is being calmly asked to change your behavior. Now that's scary.

Being out of control is scary at first but comical later on.

Remember: If you lose control, you will be mocked at a gathering of those you've yelled at. You will be ridiculed. Your mental state will be pondered.

A flash of anger is like a comet: long, long tail.

Think of yourself as a football team. Things aren't going well? Timeout.

Counting to 10 works. It's a little infantilizing, but it works.

Counting to 20 works, too. Takes longer, but it works.

Counting to 30 is a little much.

Think of anger as a cue--not that someone has done something wrong, but that you have been hurt, that your boundaries have been violated, that this is the last in a long series of events that have upset you.

Thinking about what those things might be is a good way to spend those 10, 20 or 30 seconds.


Whoa, whoa, whoa. Hang on.


Before you freak out, before you lose your mind, before you go over there and yell at Mindy or Steve or Mindy and Steve … calm down and ask yourself a few questions.

Is it worth the risk to your reputation, to company morale? Is it worth having to follow through on your threats? Is it worth raising the volume? Because the next time you're going to have to be even louder to make your point. Is it worth being so loud? Is it worth freaking people out?

Also: Is it worth the energy required to yell, to slam your fist? Is it worth the high blood pressure? The twitch in your eyelid? The twitch in both eyelids? The general bluster?

If you've decided that it's worth the risk and it's worth the energy, then let's figure out how to do it. Let's figure out how to be restrained and thoughtful about something that is mostly unrestrained and thoughtless.

The Anger Games
Illustration by Chris Philpot

Although anger is the most powerful impulse we have, it's the one we think about the least--if we think about it too much, it ceases to be anger--but nothing should be more considered. With anger we can change the way people work. We can motivate them. We can make them realize they've caused offense. Also, we can scare them. We can make them curse us to their spouses. We can make them burn us in effigy. We can make them cry. Anger is a tricky, effective, terrifying thing--which is why it requires etiquette.

How to Be Angry

First, a conversation all of us should have with a psychologist before we act on our rage.

All Of Us: We're pissed.

Michael McCloskey, associate professor of psychology at Temple University, who studies aggressive and self-aggressive behavior: In the heat of the moment, driven, competitive people can be quick to assume someone else's action as negative or that they're trying to get one over on them.

AOU: Oh, are we pissed.

MM: Before you act on that, give yourself time to ask yourself: Is that the real reason, or are there any other reasons?

AOU: We're listening.

MM: In the heat of the moment, especially when you're angry, you're going to think the fact that you're angry is evidence that you're right. So if an employee didn't get something done, and you think it's because they're lazy and don't care about their job or the business, you take your anger as evidence of being right. But if you stop, give yourself a moment and think about the hundred other possible reasons for it before you go in there screaming and yelling, you might find out the person's kid was sick.

AOU: Kids, doc? We wanted to be myopic and now you're making us look at things with a wider frame. You're making us be thoughtful.

MM: … or something else happened, and this was someone who usually does a good job. You want to work with the person, vs. coming down on them like a ton of bricks and losing the loyalty you've built up.

AOU: Ton of bricks. Damn.

MM: Humans have a wonderful ability to habituate to whatever we have to deal with. So what happens is that after a while, you have to scream more and louder and go to more extremes to get the same results. And then when you have to go to more extremes, you're talking about physical stuff, and that's how you get yourself fired and sued.

AOU: Yeah, we need to relax.

Anger is a defense mechanism, a cue to let us know that our boundaries have been violated--a wake-up call. How we respond to that wake-up call can be either constructive or destructive.

How to be Constructive

Don't act immediately. (Obviously.) Count to 10. Count to 20. Or don't count--you're not an 8-year-old. Maybe just sit there awkwardly staring at whoever is pissing you off. If you want to blow up, you can always do it later, but you can't undo it once you've done it. Displaying anger is like being given a bunch of data, picking out a random statistic and acting on whatever it suggests.

Quiz: Should you yell?

1. Is someone's life in danger? Yes! (30) No! (0)

2. Are you employed as a drill sergeant, lifeguard, construction worker or carnival barker? Yes! (20) Of course not! (0)

3. Might there be a long list of things you're yelling about, instead of the one thing you have chosen? No! (10) I guess there might be! (0)

4. Are you prepared to act on your threats? Yes! (5) Maybe some of them! (0)

5. Say, a week from now, if someone played back a video of you getting angry, would it embarrass you? No! (3) So, uh, yeah, forget all that. Anyone want a coffee? I'm buying. (0)

More than 20 points: You should yell | Fewer than 10 points: Best not to.

"If you stop and think about it, you might find there were other things that actually had you upset beforehand, and this is just the lowest-hanging fruit in terms of what to get upset about," McCloskey says. The etiquette of anger is in the restraint. The etiquette is in being quiet. The etiquette is in not doing anything. The etiquette is in the gathering of information, in listening, in not acting.

There are two currencies of business: money and information. By not acting you maintain your dignity and continue gathering key information that can help you make an informed decision--including the decision to get angry or not. Your anger will be implied anyway. And implied anger is the most effective anger--it forces the other party to temporarily guess at your feelings. They might end up apologizing and making corrections before you've allowed yourself to be vulnerable. (That's the thing about anger--it makes you powerful and vulnerable at the same time.)

As long as you're not reacting, you're controlling information. You are maintaining a dignified position. When it comes to anger, the etiquette is saving your ass--and possibly a relationship. Maybe even your business.

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