The Case of the Angry Accountant

For a long time in my family company, anger was ignored, pushed under the rug.  Whenever people manifested symptoms of anger, they were avoided like the plague.  They were treated as if their anger and managing it was their own problem and the rest of us should ignore it and just mind our own business.    If it got too bad, we quietly let the angry person go.

But there are other, better ways of dealing with anger.

Let me share my experience with Lefteris, the head of our accounting department.  He was one of the angriest people I had ever met, frequently shouting at his subordinates and peers, sometimes even at clients in arrears of their payments or waiters who “delayed” bringing him his coffee.  At other times he would just rage generally at the government and the taxman for their stupidity and unreasonableness. But we all just shrugged and ignored his outbursts because he was extremely good at his job and earned the company a lot of money.

But the day came when his shouts of anger outside the conference room actually brought a Board meeting to a halt. My father, the Chairman of the Board, finally snapped and tersely instructed me to deal with the problem, even if this meant laying Lefteris off.

The first thing I did was to take a day off to think about the dynamics of anger. I reflected on my own experience with it, and tried to answer the following questions:

Why did I get angry – what or who caused or at least triggered it?

How did I show my anger? Did I sulk or shout?  Did I insult other people?

How did it go away? By itself or because of what I or other people did?

As I thought about my own experience and compared it with what I saw happening with Lefteris, I realized that we were actually quite lucky that he was so transparent with his feelings. Many people express anger passively, making it harder to identify and fix. At least Lefteris could not deny that he was angry.

Then I listed on a piece of paper all the possible reasons that could trigger Lefteris’s frequent fits of anger.  I finally came up with the following:

He had problems with his nervous system or other health problems.

There were problems with his family or other parties outside work.

He had issues with or felt threatened by his subordinates, his peers, or his superiors.

If any of these were triggers for his actions, then he perhaps needed our understanding and help rather than some kind of sanction.  So the next thing I did was when I found him in one of the rare moments he was in a good mood was to invite him for a beer in a coffeehouse near our office.  In a quiet voice, I started by emphasizing the value he was adding to the company and our great appreciation of his contribution.  I then pointed out how upsetting his fits of anger were and asked if we could do anything to help him to temper them.

After looking at me for a long moment, he said:  “If you only knew how angry I am with myself for behaving that way but once the anger overflows, I can’t seem to control it. Anyway, I greatly appreciate your concern”. As we talked some more, it became clear that his anger stemmed largely from a feeling that many of his colleagues resented him and were trying to undermine the economies he was introducing.

I appreciated that this could sometimes be a valid concern, but pointed out that it would not always be the case and that in any event, losing his temper would not only not help, but would actually damage his cause. Where would his contributions to the company go if we had to let him go because other people couldn’t work with him?

Eventually we agreed on a course of action. Whenever he started to feel angry in order to try and calm himself, he would step back and try to reveal the reasons behind his anger. He promised to ask himself whether what other people were saying to him was not a reaction to his own behavior rather than an expression of their hostility to him.

We also made a plan to monitor his progress, which included that we would meet at the café once a week to review his interactions with colleagues. At these meetings we would discuss how his colleagues were treating him and what their motivations and attitudes towards him might be; what had triggered his particular outbursts and how he might have reacted differently. Slowly but surely, thanks to his efforts and our regular meetings, he gradually found ways to rein in his temper. 

Of course, he didn’t change his personality; he remained hot-tempered and prone to outbursts, but he did learn to control himself well enough that we did not have to let him go. What he needed was a way to identify and to express his negative feelings and thoughts to his colleagues before they turned into furious outbursts.  And all it took me to give him that was an hour a week in a café lending him a sympathetic ear and giving him encouragement, understanding, and concrete advice on how to deal with his problem effectively.

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