Is anger the answer?

I have always counted my even temper as a strength, especially in my role as chair.  In my experience, it is usually better to collaborate and compromise than to to throw a fit when something doesn’t go the way I expected.  When the unexpected happens, I try to figure out a solution, and when colleagues and administrators present me with challenges or unreasonable demands,  I try to stay calm.  But I am wondering if maybe I should rethink my approach in certain situations.  Our department has been shortchanged recently: other departments are getting faculty lines, newly-renovated space, more attention.  The word on the street is that one of the chairs whose department has been the beneficiary of more resources recently also is known to get worked up when things don’t go according to his specifications.  Am I failing to be an effective advocate for resources for my department if I always respond moderately? Are there times when anger would be the better response?—Professor Simmering

Dear Professor Simmering:

Anger is tricky. Too much, and you’re a bully and a blowhard. Too little and you risk being taken for granted. And there are different kinds of anger. Personally, I’m rarely in favor of “throwing a fit,” since that kind of anger is hard to control and people end up saying things that they regret. But there are times and situations in which well-placed anger is the best strategy. You’re clearly angry here. What you need to sort out is how best to express that.

I’ve found that the most useful kind of anger is the one that’s connected to standing on principle. You’re angry not because your colleagues got the resources they did, I’d imagine — after all, in the current state of underfunded, poorly resourced higher education, everyone should be getting hires, renovations, and attention. Rather, it’s because you’re being, in your words, short-changed. Your department is just as worthy but it’s being left behind. And, not surprisingly, you’re angry.

Okay, so let’s use that anger productively. As someone who’s even-tempered you have the advantage here. Your dean doesn’t expect you to be and/or sound pissed off, so you’ve got the element of surprise on your side. It also helps to buttress your anger with data. Can you put together a document that contrasts what other departments have received that your department hasn’t, side by side with comparables like enrollments, number of sections you offer, your participation in general education, or college-wide service, or research, or whatever you can use to bolster your argument?

Once you’ve done that, get to the point. In your meeting with the dean make your anger explicit, and be clear that it’s not that you want special treatment for your department. Rather, you want equal treatment. In my experience, the most effective way to express anger isn’t through shouting but through firmness of tone and choice of words (I learned this by raising children: I could put the fear of God into them just by saying “I’m about to lose my temper. Do you want that to happen?”). This is particularly true for women. Often when women are angry, the pitch of their voices rise. Whatever your gender, keep your voice steady and in your middle range. You want intensity, rather than volume.

Clarity and directness work better than accusation, as does the repeated emphasis that you are making a just argument. You are not demanding things; you are pointing out what it is that you deserve and haven’t received. And try as much as possible to put the onus of explanation on the dean. For example, rather than asking “Why did departments x and y get lines and we didn’t???” you might say “Given our larger enrollments, it’s not at all clear to me why departments x and y are getting lines.” Photos of crumbling facilities are good too: “How do you expect our faculty to teach and our students to learn in this kind of environment?” You can also explicitly contrast your righteous anger with the tantrums of others: “I’m not going to sit here and throw a fit to get what we deserve. But I’m angry that my desire to be collaborative has been read as acquiescence to being short-changed.” If you want to push it one level of difficulty higher, you can use irony and scorn —  “Clearly, losing one’s temper seems to work here. So why don’t you tell me how angry I have to be to get your attention and I’ll do that” — but it’s hard to pull off.

Ultimately, not expressing anger productively leads to resentment, which is corrosive to you and to your relationships with your fellow chairs and your dean. Feeling short-changed can end up as feeling taken advantage of, which in turn can cause you to feel like there’s no point in being your co-operative, consultative self because you’re just going to get screwed. To be able to maintain your even-tempered stance of collaboration, you need to recognize and point out when collaboration has been made impossible by others. You have every right to be angry at that.

The Chair

1 Comment

  • Todd says:

    Yes to all of the above. And know how to pick your battles, recognizing that while anger will rarely fix a decision (no matter how boneheaded) that has already occurred, it may set you up for the next decision to go your way.

    There are many hills you can die on, but few worth actually dying on.

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