Anger Management Issues or Narcissistic Tendencies? 17 Soft Skills That Help or Hurt

Thursday, September 17, 2009

“Does Serena Williams, Kenye West and Rep. Wilson demonstrate the need for anger management or is it something else?”
America is exploding with public displays of person-directed anger in sports, entertainment and politics. While anger is a normal human emotion, the displays of verbal aggression and anger by West, Williams and Rep. Wilson represents unhealthy anger which destroys interpersonal relationships as well as the reputation of the perpetrator.

According to George Anderson, an anger management coach, there are six situations in which anger is unacceptable in a civil society:

  1. When it is too intense.
  2. When it occurs too frequently.
  3. When it lasts too long.
  4. When it leads to person-directed aggression or violence.
  5. When it destroys interpersonal relationships.
  6. When it has health implications.
Anderson goes on to say “Anger is one of the most misunderstood and overused of human emotions. Anger is not a planned action - it’s a reaction to an inner emotion. Anger is energy. It serves a purpose by giving people the drive and determination to cope with difficult situations we find ourselves in. Anger helps discharge tension. If handled well, anger can help resolve conflict and improve relationships with others. Anger is an easy emotion to show; everyone gets angry.”

Does anger, when poorly managed, indicate a lack of anger management as a skill, lack of respect or something more complex such as a combination of lack of respect for others and lack of a set of basic skills?

Let’s start with a lack of respect for others. Whether it be a sports referee, a panel of judges for an entertainment award or the President of the United States, there seems to be a plausible theme running through each of these public displays of anger. First, a sub-minimum level of respect for others. Second, in each of the three recent public examples, the person is coming from a position of privilege. And third, in each case, each is feeling something is being taken away from them that they thought they had a right to have. When a two-year old acts out in this manner (a temper tantrum in the store when they can’t have the toy on the shelf) most parents stop the behavior in an appropriate but clear manner that makes the temper tantrum a poor choice for the child. As a parent, I call this “the terrible two’s”. Why just the “two’s”?

As parents, we teach our children at an early age how to respect us, how to respect others and how to accept that they can not have any thing they want. I believe that is why most adults behave in a “civil manner” when faced with challenging or frustrating situations. Is anger a valid emotion? Absolutely. But to Mr. Anderson’s point above, it is unacceptable behavior when it crosses the line.

So perhaps these three public figures didn’t receive a proper upbringing. Or maybe their rise to fame created confusion for them - losing their way from the path of decency, respect for others and civility. Or perhaps it is something more. Could it be narcissism?

Unhealthy Narcissism is the extreme result of a lack of skills. The lack of development of those skills or loss of those skills might be due to the adult environment, stress levels or their childhood. It is very possible it is a combination of all of these.

So what can an adult who has unhealthy narcissistic behaviors do?
Usually, they are not aware of or open to feedback until their behavior becomes so outrageous that “their public image” is destroyed. In the corporate setting, I often see the narcissist anxious to have a third party mediator get involved. They are so sure they are “right” and “healthy” that the “other” person(s) who they see as “the problem” will be highlighted and dealt with appropriately. This happens in businesses too often. The result there is usually termination.

Most companies don’t have the time, confidence or see the value in investing in someone who has stepped over the line one too many times. In organizations, the critical straw that broke the back is one of many outbursts that were tolerated for too long. Unlike the good parent with the two-year old, companies tend to find the narcissistic behavior difficult to stop before it becomes dysfunctional for the organization. Once it is dysfunctional for the organization, it results in a termination. The human resources function is not equipped to handle these types of people and are usually the enemy of narcissistic managers. Placing a narcissist on a “performance plan”, while procedurally correct, has the same potential for self-correction as the Titanic did on that fateful night.

So what can people do to stop the dysfunctional behavior before it reaches a point of no return?
In my coaching, I have focused on selected skills that are connected to the dysfunctional behavior. These skill development strategies must be integrated with one-on-one coaching. To not provide the one-on-one coaching is to leave self development in the hands of a dysfunctional, narcissistic person which as a low probability of being successful.

So what skill modules have been shown to help a person become a better person, better leader, better professional? I’ve provided a list of skills that, when intentionally developed, will eliminate unhealthy narcissistic outbursts of anger.
  1. Empathy
  2. Conflict Management
  3. Personal Effectiveness
  4. Interpersonal Skills
  5. Diplomacy
  6. Flexibility
  7. Freedom from Prejudice
  8. Self Improvement
  9. Relating to Others
  10. Persuading Others
  11. Correcting Others
  12. Flexibility
  13. Evaluating What is Said
  14. Balanced Decision Making
  15. Surrendering Control
  16. Personal Accountability
  17. Sensitivity to Others
To keep a culture of narcissistic behavior out of the organization requires ongoing effective leadership development. This can include at its center, a set of core competencies established to communicate expectations as well as guide the leadership development program. One of the best books on leadership development that I’ve used is Stephen Covey’s The 8th Habit. In the book, Covey address’s two critical elements to highly successful leadership: 1) Find Your Voice and 2) Inspire Others to Find Their Voice. If, as a leader, or just as a person, you are focused on those two things, you can’t possibly have narcissistic tendencies.

Carl Nielson
Chief Discovery Officer
Success Discoveries