Stress Help: Managing Aggression in Meetings

Business people in Dubai, invariably identified as a meeting-point, and a melting pot, between Eastern and Western business cultures, might be interested in some recent workplace stress research from California, on the west coast of the United States.

A group of American students at the University of Berkeley were divided into those with a European background and those with an Asian background, and told to try to sell a product online, making a point of bargaining hard on the price and also on the warranty period offered. Unbeknown to them, the buyer was told to display anger during this haggling routine on the price asked for and offered.

There was a sharp difference evident between the reactions of the two groups. The Europeans made significantly more concessions when the buyer displayed anger, whilst the Asians made considerably fewer compromises within a similar negotiation.

Interestingly, there was a second experiment, where the same students were told whether or not aggressive tactics were acceptable during negotiations. This time, the Asians made more concessions when told that they were acceptable, and Europeans made fewer concessions when told that such tactics were unacceptable. In other words, they were readily adapting to the relevant business culture.

Of course, we have always known that Eastern business meetings are subject to more formalised rituals, and that any loss-of-face is difficult to accept. But although anger management is an important part of stress management training, it is not quite true to say that aggressive behaviour should never be used.

Welcoming Anger
Early in my career, I worked with a man who had originally been trained in the insurance business, where the boardroom culture was based on professional control and gravitas, and aggressive behaviour was always avoided. By the time I knew him, he had joined an advertising agency, where he was ridiculed for his conventional management style, and had to learn to adapt.

Apparently, advertising clients welcomed aggressive behaviour at meetings, and the agency took care to rehearse these in full theatrical style. Clients generally felt that such aggressiveness was good. It meant that the agency team was deeply absorbed in the product, and had strong feelings about it. It also marked them out as executives of a certain calibre and character  –  willing to think experimentally, fight their corner, take risks. The whole performance was meant to mirror the bold and the unconventional, in other words the spirit of good advertising. Clearly a conventional meeting would not only have left them bored and dissatisfied, but would suggest that the advertising that came out of it would also lack drama and interest.

There is no doubt that this entrepreneurial style has spread through many industries and professions in the West, where structured formality in meetings has been overtaken by a more relaxed, unstructured and colourful methodology of motivating salespeople, and also clients/ customers. Meanwhile, we are seeing the huge ascendancy of both China and India as the new super-states of the 21st century, who will be able to enforce their own boardroom traditions even more strongly on Western clients and colleagues.

Anger management training will therefore be needed for many executives, not because they’re living in a stressed state, but because it will be an essential boardroom skill  –  part of their Eastern travel checklist, no different from sun-cream or malaria pills.

Key points about Anger Management

East and West react differently to anger at business meetings

In the West, solemn formality is less acceptable in the boardroom

Executives will need to adapt to the anger-free Eastern culture

Ever seen someone lose their temper in the boardroom?  Was it taken as a disgraceful loss of control? Or was it welcomed as a sign of strength and independence?

It would be good to hear from you and leave your comment in the comments column.

[Reprinted with the kind permission of Gulf News]

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