Training: No Place for Anger

Sept. 20, 2019
When training and employee development doesn’t go as planned, anger can make the situation worse.

The pain and suffering you inflict on yourself by feeling outraged may far exceed the impact of the original insult. – David D. Burns, MD

It is an unfortunate fact of corporate life that employees don’t always do what we expect of them, and equally unfortunate that when this happens, one of our most common responses is anger. Although the target may be a person or group of people we think have mucked things up or a situation that has gone unaccountably awry, the fact is that it is often our personal thoughts and conclusions that get us hot under the collar.

So says Dr. David Burns, a psychologist who over the years has had a lot to observe about unproductive human emotions, anger being high on the list.

Let’s say you’re an office manager in a mid-sized construction company, and after substantial research and consultation, you have decided to purchase a new or updated version of estimating software. In your mind, the updated program will result in economic efficiencies, ease operations for the office staff, and make it possible for office and field personnel to communicate more effectively. Your training director, who, like you, prefers to work top-down, has bypassed resources offered through the software vendor and developed an in-house training program you both consider will get your employees up to speed quickly. You’re feeling good about the way things are going and expect a congratulatory pat on the back from your boss in the corner office.

Unfortunately, the situation doesn’t unfold quite as planned. The employees you expected to embrace the new system aren’t with you on its benefits. The additional bells and whistles have increased demands on their time, which many consider are already overloaded. Worse, because the new program is primarily an update, they’re expected to transition to the new procedures during their regular workday. Mistakes are made, the expected coordination between field and office doesn’t materialize, and both groups are busy pointing fingers. Instead of the pat on the back you expected, you’ve been called on the carpet.

As the mistakes pile up and the slowdowns accumulate, your irritation mounts, and as is often the case in such situations, you set off in search of someone to blame. Since you and the training director operate out of the same playbook, this leaves your employees as the logical scapegoat.

Once a situation gets to this level, it can be difficult to step back and take an informed look at what went wrong. Has blaming someone (or something) for the glitch in the system made you feel better or helped resolve the problem? Have you—or your training director—dug deeply enough into the landscape of your employees’ concerns?

Reviewing Burns’ thoughts on anger, it struck me how much of what he has to say is particularly applicable to training and employee development, particularly when training exercises implemented for what managers consider the best intentions, go off the rails, leaving a boxcar of disgruntled employees hunkered on the siding. Central to Burns’ observations is that it is not the person or even the mechanics of an incident that triggers an anger response, but the way we humans perceive a situation, which in turn influences the way we think and feel about it—and ultimately how we behave in our attempts to resolve it. In Burns’ paradigm, it’s not the people who have misbehaved or the events that have backfired that are the source of our anger but our own “hot thoughts,” anchored in our unique and personalized feelings and perceptions. And when something genuinely negative occurs, it’s the meaning we attach to it that causes us to act inappropriately.

Because anger is often based in what Burns describes as “twisted, one-sided, or just plain wrong” thoughts and perceptions (“cognitive distortions” in the language of psychologists), it’s one of the least productive reactions we can apply when a situation goes sour. Labeling (or more likely mislabeling), for example, is one of the easiest knee-jerk traps we fall into when we feel we’ve been treated unfairly or a situation or incident is unjust. We describe the culprit in sometimes emotional and often inaccurate language—he’s a jerk or lazy; she’s always late or unprepared. When you write a person off this way, says Burns, you pile on everything you don’t like about them and ignore or discount any of their good points. This leads not only to the next step of blame making but also another cognitive distortion, mind-reading, wherein you invent motives that explain (often without any input from the person or persons on the other side of the equation) what they did or didn’t do. Adding additional spice to the situation, you can always throw in magnification—blowing the importance of a negative action or event out of logical proportion, which has the unfortunate but also predictable effect of intensifying and/or extending the duration of your anger.

One of the particularly disruptive and demeaning snafus in training situations is what Burns identifies as unrealistic expectations, our long list of shoulds—your belief, for example, that employees should at least try to measure up to the standards you set for them (even though you might not have solicited their input). Another example: if you initiate something for their benefit, they should take up the challenge and get with the program. On the other end of the spectrum, employees may believe that you as a manager should be able to address any on-the-job challenges quickly and constructively. As Burns points out, the people you’re angry at are unlikely to admit—or at a minimum believe—that they deserve punishment for the actions you perceive as anger-making. Which means that if you proceed with disciplinary action, you will only be making matters worse. “Even if you temporarily get what you want, any short-term gains will often be more than counterbalanced by a long-term resentment and retaliation from the people you are coercing.”

We’ve written about these sticky situations any number of times in this column, and as usual, much of what we’re talking about here boils down to communication. What’s different in Burns’ evaluation is the solution, which he is only too happy to explain boils down to empathy. I can see your eyes rolling now—“I’m supposed to listen to what my employees want, compare it with what I need, and extract a mutually meaningful compromise? Come on.”

Exactly, says Burns. So does that mean that you should have sympathy for that group of layabouts who’ve become a cog in the wheel of your department’s efficiency? Not sympathy, says Burns. Sympathy, real or feigned, focuses on feelings and doesn’t go far enough. Too often sympathy and its sidekick, support, get lip service rather than real action, and the people who are the supposed recipients of these strategies can smell the rat from 10 feet away. Empathy is more complicated. As Burns describes it, empathy is the ability to comprehend with accuracy (italics mine) the precise thoughts and motivations of other people in such a way that they would say, “‘Yes, that’s exactly where I’m coming from!’” The moment you grasp why the other person is acting in a certain way, says Burns, “it puts the lie to your anger-producing thoughts.”

Taking the time to apply empathy is critical at two fundamental stages of training. The first involves uncovering and understanding the motivations, thoughts, and perceptions of the people you’re planning to train so that all elements of the program make sense to them. This aids you in addressing their expectations and interests in a way that they understand where you’re coming from and are thus much more likely to join up. If this initial effort is inadequate or fails for some reason, the next step is to determine how and why things went wrong, understanding at “the deepest possible level” the whys and wherefores of your employees’ seemingly uncooperative behavior.

As Burns recommends, “If you learn to see the world through other people’s eyes, you may well be surprised to realize their actions aren’t inappropriate from their point of view.”