Anger Management

The title of this post is a double-entendre: This is going to be as much about managing angry as it is anger management, although they are related. The fact is, a lot of managers’ anger towards their direct reports is really a result of their own anger management problems.

But let’s begin at the beginning.

Back in the day, I coached high school boy’s basketball–in an eskimo village on an island in the middle of the Bering Straight in Alaska. Before you think to yourself, “How quaint,” let me tell you that this is one of the most intense basketball environments I’ve ever seen. The teams are highly competitive and literally the entire village shows up every Friday and Saturday nights. The tiny gyms are packed to overflowing, and the fans are up close and personal–they could usually reach out and touch the players if they wanted to.

The Apangalook High School Qughsatkut (King Polar Bears) were to Gambell, Alaska what the Los Angeles Lakers were to LA, and maybe more so. Local identity was closely tied to three things:

  1. Siberian Yupik culture and language
  2. Success at whale hunting
  3. Success at basketball

And I’m not sure I have the order right.

I was fortunate enough to have received some excellent cross-cultural training at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Most of the training really amounted to, “Don’t be an ass”, but you’d be surprised how hard that is for some people. Back to the point: I learned about leveraging cultural norms and avoiding cultural taboos.

Yelling and anger were cultural taboos in Gambell; eskimos are quieter than most of the rest of us in the USA. In fact, the only people who got visibly angry and yelled were drunks! Perhaps most importantly, calling out an individual and publicly humiliating them–even in a classroom setting–was a surefire way to lose a student for the remainder of the year.

So in one of the smartest moves of my life, I determined to be an encourager. And I tried really hard not to embarrass my students or my players by calling them out individually, especially in public. I wasn’t perfect, and I had to apologize a time or two. But my students excelled and my teams won, and even went to the state tournament my second year.

A key observation here is applicable anywhere and everywhere: No student athlete ever walked on to the court and said to themselves, “I want to throw the ball away”, or “I want to miss this shot.”

Similarly, no employee ever said, “I want to screw up and make my boss angry.”

Similarly, no employee ever said, “I want to screw up and make my boss angry.”

NOTE: If you do have employees that think that way, then you have a hiring problem that has turned into a management problem. Hint: Fire fast, and fix the root problem, which is the hiring process.

It is my experience that developers, in particular, are generally a highly intelligent and high achieving group. Give them clear expectations and positive reinforcement, and they will perform admirably. Show genuine appreciation for good work and, most importantly, respect their time and life outside of work.

Above all, don’t publicly criticize–instead, assume the failure is at least in part your own and instruct and remediate. Above all, give up the yelling or other histrionics, please. It makes for a toxic environment and is de-motivator to most folks. If you have high turnover, look to that behavior in yourself or others first.

Just as my basketball team achieved amazing things, so too, I believe software teams will respond as well. I’ve lived it and seen it happen. The results will speak for themselves quite soon.