Strategy & Operations » Leadership & Management » Psyched in the workplace: Let the anger out

THERE’S A LOT of negotiating going on at the moment. The US and EU are entering trade talks. David Cameron wants powers back from Brussels and the UK has, according to press reports, desperately tried to soften the blow of new European curbs on bankers’ pay – with little success. A lot of smoke filled rooms, filled with people trying to win concessions and, essentially, get their own way (there’s no such thing as a smoke filled room anymore, surely?).

But how do you do that effectively? How do you persuade people to listen? In these instances it’s worth turning to the psychologists for some insight, and one bit of work which might help is research which looked at what happens if you “fake” anger during negotiations.

Academics looked at this because past research had concluded that anger in a negotiation tended to get you what you wanted. The explanation being that counterparties were likely to conclude that you were tough and unlikely to bow to pressure. Conclusion? Just blow your top and the day, trade deal or price on widgets was likely to be yours.

So, some psych boffins from Canada and the Netherlands[1] designed an experiment which looked at what happens during negotiations for a used car. They persuaded actors to help. During the negotiation the actors were instructed to remain emotionally neutral, or fake anger (right up their street) or dig deeper and deliver some “deep acted anger”, or what the psychologists thought closely approximated to the real thing. The actors then haggled over the car with undergraduate students. Some quite nuanced results emerged.

Fake anger tended to be met with a tougher negotiating stance from the undergrads. In short putting on a face wasn’t of much benefit. “These findings provide initial evidence that surface acting anger does not have the favourable consequences that were identified in past research on the effects of showing anger, and that surface acting anger instead carries costs for negotiators,” they conclude. This was especially the case if talks went into a second round. However, genuine anger, they discovered, “elicits concessions”.

“The strategic management of anger has important consequences for the behaviour of parties during negotiation, and, we suspect, for social behaviour in general,” they say.

The team has caveats, not least that a neutral emotional position may come across as detached, steely poise that frankly that people find persuasive, especially when they’re able to compare it to fake anger. Also, the genuine anger experiment was conducted using video footage. It may be that people watching film concentrate more on emotional reactions than they do when face to face.

But the issue may just be trust. People don’t like fakery so they toughen up in the face of faux anger. Likewise, when the anger appears real, they soften their stance.

Recently I came across another note on persuasion. Psyblog[2], written by Jeremy Dean, author of Making Habits, Breaking Habits, points out that a truck load of research has concluded that simply saying to someone that they are “free” to choose could be one of the most influential persuasion techniques going. A review of 42 studies by Christopher J Carpenter[3] demonstrated that this was a useful approach to getting your own way. Dean says: “By reaffirming their freedom you are indirectly saying to them: I am not threatening your right to say no. You have a free choice.”

It made me wonder whether it could be even more effective if combined with some genuine vexation. Which had me conjuring unlikely images of David Cameron loosing it with euro politicians and declaring: “You’re free to choose but, frankly, I’m livid.” And then miraculously they all say he was right all along (it’s only an image in my head).

Cameron doesn’t come across as someone prone to displays of emotion, especially in negotiations. I imagine he would prefer to be seen as a somewhat cool, reserved character in line with the British stereotype of the stiff upper lip, what the Europeans like to call our “phlegmatism” (there’s more than a little truth in this). Which means, as negotiators we are not overly given to angry outbursts. Perhaps, if we really want a deal with Europe, or you want to seal that big acquisition, or protect bankers’ pay we need a little more emotion.

Gavin Hinks is a freelance journalist and writes the Profits and Loss blog at

[1] The Consequences of Faking Anger in Negotiations: Stephane Cote, Ivona Hideg and Gerben A. van Kleef, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Vol 49, pp453-463, (2013)
[2] Read the PsyBlog at
[3] A Meta-Analysis of the Effectiveness of the “But you are free” Compliance-gaining Technique, Christopher J Carpenter, Communication Studies, Vol 64 Issue 1, (2013)