Updated: Jul 17, 2019
How It Came Up, Again
I recently bumped into someone who had worked for me, decades ago, when we were jamming hard to build a startup. “I was thinking of you”, he said. “You were the only manager I ever had that made me cry”. He laughed, and I laughed — it was a long time ago, and we liked each other, and still do. But it wasn’t a good memory.
And then I was exchanging notes with an old colleague of mine about management guidance to include in an online course. “You lost your shit a couple of times, back in the day”, he wrote. “It was effective. You might want to mention that”.
It was effective. But that’s not the lesson I want to pass on.
Getting Angry — The Joys
It used to almost be a guilty pleasure. Letting loose, yelling, banging the table, firing the energy across the room, feeling the momentum suddenly shift, people filled with drive, things beginning to move.
I got promoted. I had a reputation: I Got Shit Done. I and my colleagues moved super-fast. We shipped stuff. We went public. We were in a cool building on Townsend Street. The stock went up, and up. We were successful. I kept banging the table.
In my (OK, partial) defense, I could also be charming, funny, supportive, intuitive, creative. Anger was a mode, a tool that worked. It would not have worked if it was the only face I turned to the world, but when I used it, people listened — and they moved, and fast.
The Freedom of Obnoxious Aggression
It had a kind of joy to it. There was a feeling of freedom, of power, when I let the dog slip the leash. The sense that the normal rules of discussion had been suspended, that I was allowed to ignore limits — to get closer to the emotional core of the other people in the room and push, hard.
The Radical Candor model has a great phrase for this type of communication: Obnoxious Aggression — the style of being very direct without caring about the emotional impact of the interaction (“you’re acting like a jerk”, says Kim Scott, typically succinct).
And an Obnoxiously Aggressive style does, in fact, create a strong emotional connection, albeit an uncomfortable one. The communication is direct, and intense. We know we’ve really been heard. We know that we’ve had an impact, moved the people around us. This can feel good, great even.
And, as previously noted, Shit Gets Done. And in Silicon Valley, we do love it when Shit Gets Done.
The wreckage I left in my wake was mitigated — as I’ve said, I had many other faces and moods. People working for, and with, me created great products, built careers, achieved memorable, life-changing things. We built a company, took it public, managed through market transitions, stock crashes, acquisitions, successes, failures.
But there were costs.
A colleague, who had a been a friend, quit, cashed out, went to live in Hawaii. I met him years later, and he said, “remember that meeting? That was it. That was when I was done”.
I did remember. I had yelled at him, cursed at him, for querying why we were doing a risky, expensive, high-intensity project. He was asking a good question. It deserved serious consideration. But I wanted the project done — time was tight, and our stock, always volatile (and a massive chunk of our personal net worth), depended on it. I didn’t want to talk about it. So I shut him down, hard, and that, right there, was his limit.
There are people I would be embarrassed to see now, people who I was blunt and aggressive with when I could have reasoned. People whose creativity I rejected, whose energy I sapped and who went home sad, fearful and upset.
I also slowly became aware that the culture we were creating had a jagged edge to it. Yes, there was terrific joy, creativity and intensity, but there were also tired people, unnecessary conflict and fear. We could have done better. We could have kept some people we lost and hired some people we didn’t. We could have shipped more and better products on time, could have made better acquisition decisions.
We could have done more with less personal cost.
Creating a great company needs room for nuance, creative thinking, the nurturing of nascent, fragile, early ideas. Anger wants quick resolution and certainty. It pinches the space in which we can move (which is one reason it’s powerful, of course — focus!). But, over time, horizons become limited, people keep their heads down, stifle their creativity. So the work loses subtlety and texture. Ideas get lost. Energy stays up, but it becomes frantic, uncertain of its center.
We were successful (hey! public company! boom stock!). We could have been more successful. Obnoxious Aggression helped in the short term, and was “efficient” in the moment, but created a friction in the culture which was unnecessary, and harmful.
Long-Term: Burnout or Saint?
Finally, the effect on me was increasingly harsh. It was exhausting to continue to summon up a state of fury, and it became a blunter instrument as time went on. I began to wonder who I might become.
So I started to look ahead and get a sense of people ten years further on in their careers. As I spoke to them, it seemed to me that those who still viewed people as only motivated by carrots and sticks had a burnt quality, a deep fatigue. They sounded tired, defended, dry as dust. Their points of view were variants of “people always let you down”, “there are only a few people you can trust”.
That didn’t look like a pleasant destination.
Other senior managers were more like saints. They viewed people as flawed, certainly, but varied, fascinating, able to learn and grow, to produce moments of great inspiration. Their point of view accepted human flaws, and subtly, carefully, supported personal growth and brilliance. This looked more like a way to spend a working life.
Anger and Intensity Are Not the Same Thing
So, gradually, I left it behind. Not completely, because we never quite reform our fundamental patterns (I am an optimist in this — people change, and greatly, but a core remains, to be honored and refined for the rest of our lives), but mostly it’s behind me. When the black dog does raise it’s head, I can see it, care for it, let it be.
This doesn’t mean I’ve lost intensity, or the drive to change what’s in front of me for the better. Intensity and anger are cousins, and can be mistaken for each other. But they are not the same, and with work and care, they can be pulled apart. You can keep your intensity, and but learn to communicate it with caring and respect. Your energy will be a gift and an invitation, not a bludgeon.
It takes more work, and, in the short term, takes more time. But over the long haul, over the life of a company, or a career, the care, or lack of it, adds up. It’s much easier to bang the table. The short-term costs are bearable. The long-term, much less so.
Human nature has given us this a terribly effective tool — the ability to instill energy and fear in other people by expressing anger. It’s a blunt instrument, designed for survival in brutal life and death fights, not the building of supple, creative networks and strong, creative relationships. We can choose other paths, become skillful in our awareness and communication, and still Get Shit Done with strong, healthy teams, groups and cultures.
Your intensity, your power, can still be there. You’ll get the same amount done, maybe more. You’ll leave less damage. You’ll be happier. Try it.