Anger danger

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What can we do about it?

Brace yourself. What follows is one of my dreaded Public Affairs columns. Bear with me. It does directly bear on your responsibilities and obligations as a business leader and manager.

I’m talking about the recent Buffalo mass shooting, because how can I not? That’s the Buffalo, New York mass shooting that took place one short week ago, not to be confused with the Buffalo Minnesota mass shooting that took place last year, nor, for that matter, any of the other 42 and counting 2021 and 2022 mass shootings vying for our attention (based on a threshold of four or more fatalities).

Mass shootings have become so common they no longer always rate front-page headlines, let alone the empty, ineffectual, clichéd calls for action that now typify our national response.

Which gets us to you … make that us, as business leaders … and the most important commentary I’ve read on the subject in recent memory.

It’s titled “Hate is not at the root of most mass shootings,” (James Densley and Jillian Peterson, Washington Post, 5/15/2022). The authors have spent years researching the subject and write authoritatively about it. Their conclusion, accurately summarized in the headline, is that when we treat these events as hate crimes we’re addressing the wrong root cause. And as usually happens when trying to fix a problem by addressing its symptoms, we’re getting nowhere.

Their highly perceptive point: Mass shootings begin with anger, not with hate. Yes, we really should have listened to Yoda, who famously said, “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

Quoting from the article:

Searching for answers, angry men comb through the words and deeds of other angry men who came before, including past mass shooters. In the darkest corners of the Internet, they eventually find someone or something else to blame for their despair.

Perpetrators often choose scapegoats who represent their grievance with the world — people at their school, their workplace, a place of worship.

Anger, that is, comes first. Choosing a target for that anger comes later. Nor is there any reason to think the only targets angry people choose as their antagonists are members of some group they’re encouraged to hate. Domestic violence is an example of anger leading to targeting an individual.

Nor, for that matter, is there any reason to limit the list of those prone to anger to men.

And I’d be willing to bet, if there was a way to manage such a betting pool, that among KJR’s readership are leaders who oversee, as part of their workforce, people who feel deep-seated anger as a regular feature of their personalities.

As a leader, when you recognize that someone in your organization is deep-down angry, in an era of mass shootings you have, I think, a responsibility.

It isn’t that any randomly chosen angry individual is likely to be the next mass shooter. It’s that anger is an addiction. To the anger addict anger is pleasurable and expressing it more so.

And, unlike addictive substances, anger is contagious. Anger addicts encourage their friends to be angry. On top of which, when someone is on the receiving end of an outburst, they become angry as well.

Anger creates a chain reaction where anger leads to more anger.

For business leaders the parallels between substance and anger addiction hold.

Except for positions where substance abuse can endanger those who depend on the abuser – pilots and operators of heavy machinery, for example – you can’t, and probably shouldn’t try to police drug and alcohol abuse, but you should police whatever workplace performance deficits come from it.

If an employee’s anger strikes you as extreme you should, of course, involve HR and intervene, but neither you nor HR play or should play the role of Emotion Police.

Bob’s last word: One of Densley and Peterson’s most important conclusion is, “No one living a fulfilling life perpetrates a mass shooting.” Which brings us to the role we each have to play.

It’s within the authority and remit of every business leader and manager to make their little corner of the workplace more fulfilling and rewarding.

No, we can’t make anyone’s life fulfilling and rewarding. But we can make employees’ lives more fulfilling and rewarding.

I don’t claim this will solve the problem of societal anger and the mass shootings it engenders.

But even if all we can do is help turn down the gain a notch, that’s a lot better than doing nothing.

Bob’s sales pitch: Next up on CIO.com is the latest CIO Survival Guide. It’s titled “How to make the consultant’s edge your own,” and I could be drummed out of the Consulting League for revealing our most important trade secret.

Okay, I made the drumming out part up. But I think you’ll still enjoy the article.

Comments (12)

  • Those who organize the distribution of narcotics are themselves,seldom addicts. In the same way, those who promote the distribution of fear and anger, don’t have deep feelings for their messages. They see an opportunity.
    “Chaos is a ladder.”
    Lord Baelish is a fictional character, but, for some, it’s a guiding principle. I wish I could see just what additional advantage Rupert Murdoch expects to receive from gaming democracy.

  • Bob,
    I read the WaPo article. Your points about addressing anger issues similarly to other addictions is interesting food for thought. When I presented this to my wife, however, she pointed out that if any people should be addicted to anger, it’s black people. And women. Sand others who have faced similar societal roadblocks. Yet they aren’t going into synagogues, churches, movie theaters, and grocery stores to kill others. So there’s more to this and we need to acknowledge that.

    • Good points – thanks for raising the issue. While I’m far from an expert, I suspect that at least part of the difference is that disaffected white males, far more than any other identifiable group, are singled out by “anger pushers” … rabble rousers … more than any other group.

      Just my perception, far from a complete explanation, and I don’t pretend to be expert enough to do more than speculate.

      • Great point. You’re right, angry white men have way more forums to stoke that anger.

    • Jay – in the Yoda quote, fear came first. For Blacks and women, it is more ‘righteous anger’, given the real injustices they’ve faced; for white males, there is fear of losing their place in the world hierarchy, fear of missing out etc, but fear is emasculating – in anger, they find power.

      • Thanks Allison, you’re right, fear is a much different motivator, especially for the privileged, than the righteousness of the underprivileged.

  • This is one of your most original essays. It’s a gem!

  • And as you mention that Yoda said, fear comes before anger; and one of the surest ways to turn out a political base is to make them angry, so politicians in this country routinely stoke the anger of their constituents, to keep them voting the incumbents back in. Also, anger sells in the media, so the media report on and amplify each angry speech and tweet. Is it any wonder that all this fear feeds anger, which feeds hate, which spills over in violence?

  • The Post article said,

    “…that shooters often have the same motivation: to cause as much death and destruction as possible so that a world that had otherwise ignored them would be forced to notice them and feel their anguish. Thus, the Buffalo shooter live-streamed his actions.

    Our research shows that mass shooters walk a common route to violence through early childhood trauma. If they fail to achieve what they’ve been socialized to believe is their destiny — material wealth, success, power, happiness — as they age, they reach an existential crisis point.”

    As a black man who would have been a target had I lived in Buffalo, I think race and gender privilege play a big role in hate crimes. I also believe so does the shooter not having a way to understand why he doesn’t have a way for people of the group is a member of to have the destiny he feels they are “entitled” to.

    That destiny has to be earned in a multicultural organization for which he may not know how to become a good fit, so he becomes more and more frustrated when he doesn’t get the organizational destiny he thinks he deserves. Which leads to anger and eventually contributes to hate.

    What can a manager do? Considering how Golden State Warrior coach, Steve Kerr has handled former #1 draft pick, Andrew Wiggins, who was considered a failure by the team that drafted him, I suggest it’s about role expectations and choices.

    Regardless of GPA, academic degrees, etc., it’s about the role expectations of the employee, the manager, and the organization at the 18 month eval. Wiggins was expected to be the face of a franchise, but that’s just no who he is. He was expected to be depended on, and he is with GSW – but on defense ONLY. He was expected to be a leader, but that’s not who he is. GSW already has leaders, so the talented Wiggins who enjoys playing defense fits right in.

    We GSW fans have adapted and come to enjoy Wiggins as he is. On the other hand, GSW gave him the space to choose to get vaccinated, which showed he was willing to sometimes put the team ahead of his personal preferences. All employees have to make that choice, from time to time.

    You have to let them know that if they don’t, you’ll need to go in a different direction, as GSW did, without rancor, with Wiggins.

    Thanks for contributing to the conversation, Bob.

    • I appreciate you pointing out that managers have a role in reducing the indignities and dehumanization of the workplace.

      The short story “Committee of the Whole” (Frank Herbert) comes to mind.

  • Sadly here we are a day later and another tragedy since Bob wrote this.

    I am also watching a dramatic increase in mental health issues in my company. I need to be careful as I believe that mental health issues are just another medical problem.

    Is it surprising that these issues are popping up? No.

    Do I fully understand the cause? No.

    But I do know that loss of control is a big trigger for mental health challenges. Ditto for a society that seems more divided than ever. As noted by the authors, mix that with existing challenges that people have from childhood and life and it is a recipe for problems. See the work of Pia Melody for more on the childhood connection.

    As leaders of people, we can get handcuffed dealing with these challenges. Not only are leaders people too, but medical privacy and FMLA can keep leaders from understanding the real issues with angry employees.

    I have seen more pure “anger” in the last 2.5 years than the rest of my life. Social media has given anger a very broad and loud voice. We socialize less and stew more.

    I could go on, but this is such a difficult time. No one deserves what is happening and I wish society would pull together to solve this. All I see is more division.

  • I’m seconding Dave’s comment – to have another mass shooting so soon after Buffalo, and (as of typing this post) doesn’t seem to be racial hate crime…

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