How Women Can Use Anger to Their Advantage

Angry womenOver the years women and their emotions have taken a beating in the workplace. You know the accusations: women are shrill, emotional and teary.  Having worked with some very tough females over the years, I’ve never been willing to believe all the malarkey about women and emotions.  I’ve also noticed a lot of those emotions to be typical of men.  However, whatever your experience or beliefs about women and emotions, current research indicates fairly clearly that women can often benefit from the use of anger.

Most of us are familiar with the anger antics of Rahm Emmanuel, former Illinois legislator, former Chief of Staff for Obama, and now the mayor Chicago.   I kept a copy of Ryan Lizza’s New Yorker article on the theatrics of the colorful, obscene Emmanuel just for the sake of some needy clients.  In the article, Lizza points out that Emmanuel seems to employ his volcanic moments for effect.  One of Emmanuel’s old friends, Stanley Greenberg, argues that the new mayor’s antics from the past have always been helpful.

Sending the fish to the pollster that he thought had failed sent a message about how public he can be about his displeasure, and showed that he’s willing to step beyond the normal bounds, that he’s willing to be outrageous and he doesn’t suffer fools. He doesn’t mind bad publicity. It’s part of his cachet, it’s part of why he’s able to be effective.

The research by Stanford’s Larissa Tiedens shows quite clearly that people like Emmanuel who express anger are seen as dominant, strong, competent, and smart.  Tiedens found that not only do you receive more status and power, and appear more competent, but others are reluctant to cross you.  The question, however, is whether this research also applies to women.

It would seem that when applied to women, the research is a mixed bag.  Women who acted angry received less status and power than men.  Another study suggested that since women are presumed to be more affiliative than men, men get more out of their anger than women.

In his book on Power, Jeff Pfeffers asked Larissa Tiedens about the issue.  Tiedens found no gender differences in any of the studies she and her colleagues have run.  Tellingly, she suggested that women often show their anger in more “submissive” ways–folding their arms on their chest, raising the pitch of their voice or even crying.  Those displays don’t work so well.  Instead, Tiedens maintains that forceful displays of anger that put others on the defensive are “effective for both men and women.”  That’s been my experience and also the reputation of numerous women managers and execs with whom I’ve interacted over the years.

So how can women use anger to their advantage?
In my blog on authentic versus masked leadership, I argued along with Warren Bennis that there are numerous occasions in which acting and theatrics are a part of the business of leadership.  Indeed, building upon social psych research we are all a collection of different masks, tied to different social settings.  In still another blog I pointed out that leadership always requires a bit of theatricality.  There are numerous situations where acting the part is most appropriate.

What this means is that the wise ones align their masks with personal and organizational objectives.  And for women, I recommend very strongly that they add anger drama to their toolkit.  Obviously some of you are going to have to make some adjustments in your attitudes toward yourself and toward your roles.  But more and more successful people understand that organizational communication requires an understanding of what we call Organizational Realpolitik.  Realpolitik is political science terminology for achieving personal objectives through the use of power and practical matters.  It has some indebtedness to Machiavellian philosophy, and contrary to the overweening emphasis on authenticity, it’s an absolute necessity in the real world.

Secondly, you need to add some acting skills to your toolkit.  Try them, practice anger in front of a mirror, get feedback from your significant others, but do it.

Theatrics is a given in the toolkit of successful professionals.  That includes lawyers, physicians, businesspeople, and yes, ministers, priests, rabbis and imams.

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