Last weekend I had a ‘falling out’ at work on my mind. Someone had confronted me and asked to come to an important board meeting and I’d said No. The following morning the person stormed in and accused me of being irascible and aggressive before storming out and slamming the door. I was surprised, hurt and sad.
It so happened last weekend I had some time to kill on a train. So while brooding I read a bit of Aristotle’s ethics on the topic of anger. In general my temper is slow to rise. I can soak up a lot and am quite stoical but then when it (unusually) snaps I can say hurtful things, sometimes clinically hurtful, which I regret, often for a long time.
One of the things I’ve tried to do – and having kids has helped with this – is to connect a bit more with my emotions. Part of this involves getting cross more readily but less severely and responding better ‘in the moment’ rather than bottling things up, brooding or dishing up verbal vengeance. Aristotle would approve. For him to be too slow to anger was as much a defect as to be too quick. The ‘golden mean’ of ‘appropriate’ and ‘fitting’ behaviour is what he is all about.
When I lived in France in the 1990s, shouting, being rude and saying what you thought was a normal part of French office life. I remember the first time after extreme provocation that I lost it with someone thinking “That’s it, game over, one of us will have to resign”. The next day the guy I’d had a shouting match with greeted me like a long lost brother and shook me warmly by the hand. It was as if at last he felt he could work with and trust me now we’d had a stand up row. In my experience the ‘golden mean’ for anger in France is very different to that in the UK – just look at their street protests…
So why did I feel so bad about my spat the other week? Partly because the person I’d said ‘no’ to sharply had felt hurt by it. I was also, in truth, worried in case it turned into a grievance or an HR problem. But most of all I was worried that maybe I was out of line, and I had been aggressive, although it hadn’t felt like it at the time. Cue Aristotle for a soothing intellectual balm from 2500 years ago:
“At any given time it is possible to praise someone who seems deficient in anger, and at another praise someone who is excessively angry. There is no simple formula to determine how a man should act in a given situation or how far he can err before he is considered at fault. This difficulty of definition is inherent in all cases of perception. Questions of degree are bound up in the circumstances of particular cases. The solution in every case rests on one’s own moral sensibility. But this much is clear: in all areas of human conduct the mean is the most desirable and its attainment is the source of all moral virtue.”
I felt better for reading that. On Monday I went to talk to my accuser. I explained how the incident and subsequent exchanges had made me feel, I shared some context on the situation, my response and the history of previous board meetings. The result was a rapprochement and reconciliation. I achieved conciliation without contrition.
I’m still left with a question though: what is the golden mean for anger in the modern workplace. I remember coming back the the UK after 5 years of working in France and quite missing their candour and frankness. Sometimes people were really rude, but problems got sorted and people said what they thought.
Perhaps a bit more honest emotion in UK workplaces might be a good thing. I’m trying to show more – and feel more – these days, and it seems to work more often than not, but it’s important to be governed by the ‘golden mean’.