Dan Moshavi: Can Expressing Your Anger Make You A Better Leader?

Oct 18, 2019
Originally published on November 15, 2019 1:56 pm

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode Reframing Anger.

About Dan Moshavi's TED Talk

If you think getting angry isn't a sign of emotional intelligence — think again, says Dan Moshavi. He says research shows anger might actually be a powerful, constructive motivator in the workplace.

About Dan Moshavi

Dan Moshavi is the Dean of the Lucas College and Graduate School of Business at San Jose State University. His research focuses on leadership, and expressing emotions at work.

Previously, he taught in Switzerland at the University of Lugano. Moshavi also acted as a research fellow with the Nemours Center for Medical Leadership.

He received a bachelor's and master's degree from George Washington University and his Ph.D. in management from the University of Oregon. Moshavi has recieved more than a dozen teaching awards.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, rethinking anger and the ways this powerful emotion is sometimes misunderstood.


DAN MOSHAVI: One of the things I love about some of the anger research is it's completely counterintuitive. Who would think that expressing anger and getting people fired up has a good short-term effect?

RAZ: This is Dan Moshavi. He teaches at San Jose State University's business school. And specifically, he teaches about the qualities that make a good leader. And Dan says anger is actually one of them.

MOSHAVI: Absolutely. There's some research that shows that there is a sweet spot for anger, that anger can make some leaders more effective if being used properly. It can actually lead to better negotiation outcomes. Anger can be a powerful social communication tool for actually moving individuals and organizations forward.

RAZ: Dan Moshavi picks up his idea from the TED stage.


MOSHAVI: Imagine the following exchanges. How was work today? It was pretty good. This report I've been working on for the last month, gave it to my boss, she read it, got really angry - it was awesome. Or, how'd that job interview go? Oh, it was terrific. The guy I'll be working for? Quite an angry man. I hope I get the job.


MOSHAVI: So why don't we have these conversations? Because we view anger as a fundamentally negative emotion. But I want to make the case to you today that some of you would actually perform better for a leader who displays more negative emotions, including anger. And the reason is something psychologists call epistemic motivation, which is the inclination to thoroughly understand and experience. Individuals who have high levels of epistemic motivation tend to focus in on the meaning behind the emotion. They might say to themselves, hm, my boss is angry; I wonder why. Oh, maybe I'm not performing all that well. And then they would seek to modify their performance.

So next time you're at work and your boss gets angry, ask yourself, are you focusing in on the emotion or the meaning behind the emotion? If it's the latter, you may perform better for a boss who gets angry.

RAZ: So it seems like the model today for, like, a really successful, healthy work place is collaborative, is transparent. There's respect. Kindness is a big thing now.

MOSHAVI: Absolutely.

RAZ: But then I hear your talk, and then you say that some people actually want to work for angry people. And I'm thinking, who wants to? Why - how would they want to do that?

MOSHAVI: Yeah. There are some people that respond better to anger in terms of it internally motivating them than to, let's say, a cheerful person. You remember Bobby Knight, the basketball coach?

RAZ: Of course.

MOSHAVI: At Indiana for years. Texas Tech - right? He was known for just being a really angry person.

RAZ: Angry, yes.


BOB KNIGHT: Now, I am not here to get my [expletive] on Monday.

Did you see us play? I mean, if you're not going to [expletive] try to [expletive] motivate somebody after that, I shouldn't even get paid.

MOSHAVI: I don't want to play for the guy.

RAZ: No, of course not.

MOSHAVI: But he successfully recruited really talented athletes who did, who somehow said, that is the style that works for me, that motivates me, that I respond to.


MOSHAVI: Now, I'm not advocating that that's a healthy way to be.

RAZ: Sure.

MOSHAVI: What the upsides of anger really are about is being strategic. It's timing. It's degree. It's intensity - all those things matter. And remember that anger doesn't necessarily need to be directed at an individual; you can get an organization fired up by being angry about some external circumstance. And so utilizing anger and directing that outward can actually rally people with you.


MOSHAVI: The research shows that folks who occasionally show anger that's justified are actually respected more at work than those who don't show any anger at all because it's tied to this accountability issue, right? If somebody is really not performing and not behaving, and I just - at least it's perceived that I'm letting it go, that actually hurts how people view me.

RAZ: But you have to calibrate that anger, right? Like, we're in the 21st century. Even when you show anger, like, you have to do it with respect.

MOSHAVI: Calibration is absolutely key, right? If you're somebody who every day gets irritated and angry with a co-worker, that's not a good thing because they can't regulate their own emotions. But regulating emotions doesn't mean that we're flat. It doesn't mean that we don't show any emotion. It just means we adjust the emotion to the situation. And so we make a judgment call that a particular situation kind of almost requires or would benefit from a certain kind of emotional response.

RAZ: Interesting.

MOSHAVI: And so that's why occasionally flashing anger can be considered an emotionally intelligent response.

RAZ: So here's the thing, Dan - the power of anger is, like - it's like being under the influence of drugs almost. It pushes us to make the worst assumptions about the person or the thing that made us angry.

MOSHAVI: Absolutely. And there's all kinds of tools that we can actually use to check assumptions.

RAZ: Like what? Like, what tools?

MOSHAVI: Well, for instance, you know, let's just say you were late for a meeting, and I am angry about that. I might say, Guy, second time this week you've been late to a meeting. I'm assuming you don't care that much about what we're trying to accomplish here. By stating that assumption, you give people an opportunity to say, that's correct, or, that's not correct.

RAZ: So you would say, hey, Dan. You know, it's the second time you've been late to the meeting this week. I'm assuming you want this company to collapse, that you are actually trying to undermine us directly. And you would say, I was just dropping my kid off at daycare.

MOSHAVI: Right. And then I would have completely been wrong on my assumptions, right? The way you framed it is a little more comical than the way it often plays out, but absolutely.

RAZ: So, I mean, if we were to kind of refrain, we are living in a, I think it's fair to say, fairly angry moment from a geopolitical perspective. Would you agree with that?

MOSHAVI: Absolutely.

RAZ: Yeah, OK. There's a lot of anger in the world. Let's say you have two groups of people who are really angry at the other group of people, right? Let's say people who voted for Trump and people who didn't vote for Trump. And I think it's fair to say that in both these groups, there's a genuine hatred for people in the other group. How would you actually take that anger and turn it into something constructive?

MOSHAVI: It depends on the people. In this particular case, the rhetoric is largely what I would put in the category of destructive anger. The word liberal now has a connotation - like, if you're a liberal, that somehow, it makes you a - you know, at least in some circles, a really bad person. Or if you're a RINO - a Republican In Name Only - same thing, right? So those terms now we're using in a very innate characteristics lens - something about them, right?

So if we want to change the dynamic, it's not that you can't be angry. It's just start from more situational-based assumptions. You've seen examples of this, which is you create situations of dialogue where you can see the other side is not just a set of positions but as human and who actually shows up in the world with varying degrees of anger across a variety of issues and engage those individuals. It can have a huge positive effect. Now, overall, there's huge, huge downsides to anger, but to universally suggest that anger is all bad all the time is just not consistent with what we know.


MOSHAVI: The moral to our story is not to go out and select a bunch of angry, emotionally intelligent leaders in order to achieve world peace. Timing, intensity, motive and approach are keys to the upsides of anger. So next time you experience anger, either your own or someone else's, search for that sweet spot. What you find may pleasantly surprise you. Thanks so much.


RAZ: That's Dan Moshavi. He's the dean of San Jose State University's business school. You can see his entire talk at ted.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.