Former Human Rights Campaign head Joe Solmonese talks about channeling anger constructively in the workplace.

the-gift-of-angerWhen he was head of the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT advocacy organization, Joe Solmonese learned to harness his anger in a constructive way. Now a managing director and founding partner of the corporate advisory and services firm Gavin/Solmonese, he shares these insights in his book, The Gift of Anger: Use Passion to Build Not Destroy, which is geared towards helping young people navigate the workplace after college. He talked about the book on the Knowledge at Wharton show, which airs on SiriusXM’s Wharton Business Radio, Channel 111.

Knowledge at Wharton: The forward of the book was written by Judy Shepard, the mother of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, a gay man whose beating death almost 20 years brought national attention to hate crimes. That really sets up the issue of anger on that level, but it’s one that pervades every level of society these days.

Joe Solmonese: I had been the head of the Human Rights Campaign for almost eight years. During that time, one of the most important things we did was to pass The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, [Jr.], Hate Crimes Prevention Act in response to the tragic murder of her son. I had the opportunity to spend many days walking the halls of Congress, trying to convince members of Congress to support that legislation. The kind of answers you get from people, you can imagine. From members of Congress just not agreeing with us on the need for protections against hate-based violence, to just sort of indifference to the legislation generally.

I had the opportunity to really witness someone who had good reason to be angry, understandably filled with rage based on what happened to her son, but also to see her hear what she was getting from these people, channel that anger, process that anger, put it aside and come back with the response that we needed her to give in order to get that vote. And she did it time after time after time. I had the privilege to really see the bill passed into law, success made. It was one of the first instances where I really was able to understand the importance of being able to channel anger in a way that gets things done.

Knowledge at Wharton: But we see anger play out more now than probably going back to the 1960s. Part of that is social media and how that plays into the messages that are being delivered. We are in a society that went from political correctness to political incorrectness. This anger keeps driving a lot of things that happen, even the presidential election.

Solmonese: Right. There’s a baseline of anger in this election cycle that is very much about people feeling like the economy is rigged against them. [Actually,] unemployment is down. We’re at a much better place than we were in 2008, yet there are swaths of people out there who, for a variety of reasons, feel a deep sense of inequity, a deep sense that some have made it and others have not. There is justification to a lot of that. But you layer over that, in an unprecedented way in this election cycle, the influx of information from social media, the idea that everybody has a platform. Everybody has an opportunity to say what they think. Unfortunately, in this election cycle, the sort of ugly underbelly of rage and a whole bunch of other sentiments have surfaced that have made it the angriest electorate in recent history.

“There’s a baseline of anger in this election cycle that is very much about people feeling like the economy is rigged against them.”

Knowledge at Wharton: When and why can anger be a gift?

Solmonese: I think any emotion is a gift. Any emotion is something that we’re imbued with for a reason, whether it’s sadness or anger or frustration. Anger, the appropriate amount of anger and channeling anger in the right way is oftentimes the catalyst for people doing something they didn’t think they could do. Anger really spurs us to keep going. I write about anger and sheer will getting things done you never thought you’d be able to do, but also channeling that anger in a way that helps you to see the appropriate time to compromise and the appropriate time to give up. The Gift of Anger is an intriguing title and one that reminds us that it has the potential to be a good and important thing.

Knowledge at Wharton: I would say 99% of people reach a level of anger at some point during the work week. Something will happen in the workplace that will get them angry. A decision goes against them. They didn’t get the pay raise or promotion they expected. Part of it is being able to understand the anger, where it comes from and how to best use it, correct?

Solmonese: Absolutely. This book is very much geared towards young people entering the work world. In any given work day, we encounter things that aren’t as we would like them to be and these have the potential to make us very angry. It could be the denial of a promotion. It could be the person you’re forced to sit next to. But how do you be intentional about determining whether the anger is merited? How do you be much more self-aware about whether the denial of that promotion is your doing or not? How do you get beyond the differences that you have come to define with the person sitting next to you and find common ground so you’re more successful? That’s really at the core of what this book is.

Knowledge at Wharton: In the business world, things are not going to go 100% your way every time. That’s an adjustment and one of the things you don’t learn in college.

Solmonese: The world is changing with regard to technology, the way we communicate, the way we get things done. Young people coming into the work world are going to find themselves in the company of older people, people with different ideas than they have, people who do things differently than they do. All of that has the potential to be frustrating and anger-inducing. When do you look at the situation and say, “My way, the new way, is the way to do it?” And when do you look at the situation and say, “You know what, there’s something to be said for wisdom and experience?”

Knowledge at Wharton: You talk in the book about being able to listen intently and take in other people’s ideas and thought processes. At some point, you will come to a situation where two sides may not agree, but you need to find that middle ground. That ends up being a key ingredient of being successful in business.

Solmonese: One of the things I talk about is that as you enter the work world, you’re in the company of people who are very different from you. How do you on the front end of that experience try to define those relationships with the people you work with based on things that you have in common rather than differences? If you’ve done that work and you’ve laid that foundation so that you have strong connections with people that you work with, you’re a lot more likely to find the common ground you’re talking about around a particular issue.

Knowledge at Wharton: I think everybody in their 40s and 50s heard this advice from their parents — count to 10, walk away and assess where you are. Is that an effective strategy?

Solmonese: In a sense, that’s what I’m talking about. I call it being intentional, taking a step back and being self-aware and asking yourself a question. Am I being wronged here? What part of this is on me? I talk about asking for promotion, asking for a raise. I talk about what it is that you seek to get in your work life and being very intentional about, ‘what have I done to deserve this? How do I make the case?’ One of the things I find with young people is they make the case about a promotion and they make the case about a raise based on what somebody else is getting. I always say to them, “You’ve got to make the case based on your own performance.”

Knowledge at Wharton: Probably one of the toughest things that young people don’t understand is that you work for a company, but to some degree it’s a very individualistic society. Somebody was the lead on a project and did a phenomenal job. It was a great thing for the bottom line of the company. What have you done?

Solmonese: Right. One of the great things about the changing work world, particularly in the realm of the Fortune 500, is that the work experience is pretty great for people in terms of the accommodations we make, the way we encourage people to bring their whole selves to work, the way we can potentially let people work remotely. There are a lot of accommodations that are made for people.

“If you’ve laid that foundation so that you have strong connections with people you work with, you’re a lot more likely to find the common ground.”

But at the end of the day, your advancement and your success is based solely on your value proposition, what you contribute to the work. In the book, I talk about that the first job I ever had: I made $16,000 a year. A woman who got hired the same day I did was making $18,000 a year. I went in and asked my boss for a raise. I said, “I don’t know if you realize, Cathy makes 18, I make 16.” She said to me, “Not only do I realize it, but you just reminded me that I’m paying you less than her. Stop reminding me that you’re doing a $2,000-a-year less job than she is.” I’ve always said to people, it’s your value proposition, what you bring and how you make the case for yourself that is going to contribute to your advancement.

Knowledge at Wharton: Anger is in every part of society. With different views on different subjects and life choices, anger becomes a big issue within the church as well. An area like the church is supposed to be peaceful and calm, yet there ends up being as much anger in the church as in any corporation.

Solmonese: I talk a lot in the book, particularly in the work that I did at the Human Rights Campaign, about rethinking the way we connect with people when it comes to deep religious differences. I think that is true for people who carry a deep religious view about something to be able to take a step outside of that realm and think differently about the world.

But I think it’s equally important for people like me, who is not a particularly religious person trying to advance a gay rights agenda in the face of a lot of religious resistance and being able to put whatever my own frustration was aside and think differently.

Put myself in the shoes of these people who hold these deep religious views and try to find some common ground. I write in the book about a great deal of work we did trying to find some common ground with the Mormon church. Our work and their views were very far apart, and we’ve made just a little bit of progress in coming just a little bit closer together. But for a lot of people out there on both sides, it has profound consequences.

Knowledge at Wharton: Is the Catholic church the same way?

Solmonese: The Catholic church is a bit of a different entity to deal with when you’re working in social change or electoral politics. Unlike the Mormon church, unlike Southern Baptists where there’s a real adherence to the hierarchy, where they really follow the rule of authority, Catholics, and as a Catholic myself, we tend to sort of make our own decisions.

We tend to consider ourselves Catholic and be a part of the Catholic church, but be very independent of the hierarchy on any range of social issues. So, there’s an ability to communicate directly with Catholics and move them, at least in my work, to my point of view much more easily and without the need to deal with the leadership or hierarchy of the church.

Knowledge at Wharton: Do companies think enough about the issue of anger within the workplace? I get the sense that they understand it’s baked into the company because you’re never going to have every one of your employees agreeing 100% of the time.

Solmonese: That’s a really good question and until you just said it, I might not have thought of it that way, but I think the answer is no, they don’t. I think they think a lot about professional development. They think a lot about the disparities between an older workforce and a younger workforce.

Some of these companies that are hiring lots of people out of college or from around the world, they think about diversity. They think about a lot of different things. But I don’t know that they ever add anger and frustration and the ability to teach lessons and bring people along and think more strategically and put the emotion aside as much as they probably should.

Knowledge at Wharton: Since you’re gearing this towards kids just recently from college and entering the workforce, is there a level of this that schools should think about in terms of what they’re teaching? College is supposed to be a preparation for the real world — this is part of it.

“Don’t ask for your own office because you’ve been doing such extraordinary work, unless your own office is more important than more money.”

Solmonese: Absolutely. This book came out of a speech that I have routinely given on college campuses. A couple of schools have talked with me about this potentially being a part of a summer reading list. I think the book absolutely has a role in that. But the work and the lessons of the book unquestionably should be a part of it. Look, it’s a tough thing trying to get young people to think differently and work differently and have new ideas, but also fit into the infrastructure of the work world once they get into it. Coming out of college, everything’s new to them and everything’s different.

Knowledge at Wharton: Playing off of what you said about getting paid $2,000 less on your first job, one of the chapters in the book is, “How to ask for anything and get it.” What is the secret to getting what you want?

Solmonese: I think particularly in the workforce, the most important thing that you need to do is to be very clear-headed and dispassionate and unemotional about what it is that you want. I can’t tell you the number of people who have come to me and asked if they could sit somewhere different. “I’d like my own office instead of being in a cubicle.” If there is an office to give away, it is a lot easier to give somebody their own office than a $10,000 raise. I’m always willing to give away real estate than cash. I always say to people, “What is it that you really want? Does that mean that you feel like you ought to be getting a higher level of respect? Does it mean that you feel like you really should be getting a promotion? What does that mean?”

Knowledge at Wharton: A lot of times, it’s the same thing with a title.

Solmonese: If you feel like you’ve been doing an extraordinary job for the past six months, and you feel like your continued professional development and commitment is based on some acknowledgement of that, and you think you deserve a raise and you can make the case for that, then ask for a raise. But don’t ask for your own office because you’ve been doing such extraordinary work, unless your own office is more important than more money. But for whom is that the case?

Knowledge at Wharton: Part of that also could be that so many people think, if I have that title on my resume, that sets me up for the next job. It doesn’t go back to the money, but it soothes a little bit of that anger that maybe somebody has when they think long term.

Solmonese: I’ve heard people say the same thing about office space. If I had my own office, people will look at me differently and afford me a different level of respect. I always come back to the same thing: Your work product causes people to look at you differently and afford you a greater degree of respect. The work product and the way you participate in the work and the team and the entity is, in and of itself, going to move you up the pipeline and not just give you the new title, actually give you the new job.

“Your 20s is the time to really be thoughtful about leadership and about laying a foundation for the rest of your work life.”

Knowledge at Wharton: You mentioned that you have had people come to you and say, “I want to be sitting in a different location because of X reason.” Sometimes the reason is a specific person. How do you overcome that?

Solmonese: The onslaught of information and the world we live in now has caused us to look at anybody in the company of ourselves, whether it’s in the workplace or otherwise, and define them by what makes them different. I’m a Democrat, he’s a Republican. I’m this, she’s that. Those become the ways that you think about people in a subconscious way. The intentional work of figuring out how to turn that around for a young person has everything to do with your ability to work with other people. It has everything to do with your ability to work well in a group and to get other people to think differently about you. That’s the other side of the equation.

If you do the work of finding that common ground, the work relationship will not only be better because you’ve done it, they will probably have a greater level of respect for you and look at you differently and work with you differently simply because you did it.

Knowledge at Wharton: What’s the ultimate message you want to deliver to young adults going into the workplace?

Solmonese: That it is one of the most exciting times of your life. You walk out of college and into the work world, and it’s a blank canvas and you can do whatever you want. You ought to carry all of the emotions with you that come with that experience. But your 20s is the time to really be thoughtful about leadership and about laying a foundation for the rest of your work life.

If you can take six or seven lessons from this book and digest them and be a bit more intentional about them, I think you’ll find that your potential to do better in the realm of leadership or professional development or personal relationship is going to be a lot more successful.