Just lose it?

A recent
study by researchers from the Harvard Medical School concludes that getting
angry at work, contrary to common opinion, may not be a bad thing, but may
actually be beneficial to your career and your overall happiness (as reported by 
BBC News and the Guardian among others). The researchers nevertheless issue a few caveats: in order for anger to be
beneficial, one ought to remain in control when expressing it and be able to
“positively channel” it. On the other hand, they advise against outright fury,
which they describe as “destructive”. There is indeed an important lesson contained in these statements; one might have wished, however, that the researchers had been a little more specific in the provisos they add to their main idea.

 First of all, it isn’t fully clear whether what
they have in mind are only prudential, or also ethical (in the sense of
“other-regarding”) considerations. Uncontrolled anger is “destructive” – but
destructive of whom, the agent himself or the people at whom his anger is
directed? Presumably both, but Professor George Vaillant, who directed the
study, seems to focus on the former answer – and therefore on prudential
considerations – when he talks about the “self-destructive consequences of
unbridled fury”. Yet it is clear that the destructive consequences for others
are of prime importance here: it is a well-known phenomenon that some
forms of angry behavior such as workplace bullying can have a very harmful
impact on the psychological and even physical health of their victims.

The idea
that anger needs to be positively channeled does look like a (welcome) ethical
caveat, but it demands further development. An ethical egoist might judge that
he has positively channeled his anger if it has helped him in his career, no
matter what harm it might have done to others, and this is not how we want to
understand the notion. The researchers are right to point out that anger is a
fundamental human emotion which sometimes needs to be felt, and expressed, if
one is to achieve emotional balance and happiness. But that is not all: anger
is also, sometimes, a morally appropriate
emotion. These truths, often forgotten
nowadays, were already spotted by Aristotle when he wrote in the Nicomachean
Ethics
that the
virtuous person was not a complete stranger to anger, but rather someone who
got angry with the right person at the right time and in the right manner (book
IV, chap.5). Aristotle – who saw human flourishing and the practice of virtue
as going hand in hand – thus correctly observed that anger is an appropriate
response only in particular circumstances. He also remarked that being able to
feel anger only in those specific circumstances presupposed a rigorous training
of the emotions, something that most of us haven’t received, at least not
fully.

These ideas
are not obvious to everyone: evidence suggests that workplace bullying, which
involves people getting angry with the wrong person, in the wrong manner and at
the wrong time, is not only widespread, but can even help workplace bullies to
get ahead, especially when it is done in a top-down direction (see here, here and here).
Some bullying leaders are found to benefit their companies because they are
able to impose their strong vision more easily
(http://www.newsweek.com/id/182817); many others don’t bring such benefits, but their abusive manners might nevertheless be
mistaken for leadership skills – as is sometimes also the case, one might note, with the behavior of psychopaths (http://cobbnow.org/execpsychos.htm).

This, of
course, seems to confirm that the advice given by the Harvard researchers is
sound: if you want to get ahead faster at work, get angry. At least this is
sound advice if we are willing to confine ourselves to prudential
considerations. But if ethics also matter to us, then the advice we give on
this issue must be a lot more nuanced: it is good for you to get more angry if,
according to your experience, you tend to get angry when there is good reason
to, but have a tendency to repress your feelings. For instance, it might
sometimes be good for employees who are the victims of bullying to face their
abusers and to protest against the treatment they have received.
Workplace bullies, on the other hand, should precisely learn how not
to vent their anger on innocent or
vulnerable employees, under the pretext that they have had a stressful day or,
even worse, that this style of management has proven beneficial to their
career. Such managers have a moral obligation to channel their negative
emotions so that they don’t
get expressed needlessly in the workplace. Anger management techniques,
criticized by Professor Vaillant, seem precisely what is needed here.

To sum up,
here as in many other domains, different kinds of advice are appropriate for
different people.

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