Control What You Can Control, Including Your Anger

August 17, 2023

Justin Wilcox is used to winning and losing. For the head football coach of the University of California Golden Bears, wins and losses usually come on the football field, but his latest loss was handed to him by a bunch of college presidents and network executives far, far away from his practice field.

“There’s no denying the significance of this,” Wilcox said. “This is as big a deal as it gets to be. Really kind of shocking. Personally, it’s sad. … From what I know, it probably didn’t need to come to this, but things happened along the way, and it’s really unfortunate. So it’s frustrating. There’s some anger in there, but right now, what we’re focused on is this season.”

The “this” Wilcox was referring to is the sudden, spectacular disintegration of the Pac 12 Conference two days earlier. 

The 108-year-old “Conference of Champions” lost five of its member schools in one day to conferences with better television deals. Three others had already left. Cal was one of four schools left behind. “This” poses an existential threat to his football program, which stands now to be without the kind of TV deal his soon-to-be former peers will be getting.

But Wilcox remained focused on the two things he could control in the midst of an uncontrollable situation: the season and his emotions.

In a crisis, controlling anger is critically important. Lashing out is easy, and it nearly always makes it harder to respond effectively to a crisis.

Because if your CEO lashes out, then their anger becomes the story. Had Wilcox called the other schools’ presidents “traitors,” even justifiably, that would have been his quote in the day’s stories. “Traitors” would forever be his reaction to the crisis his football program is facing, no matter how hard the university’s communications team worked to reframe their coach’s comments.

Let’s be clear. It’s okay to be angry. It’s okay to admit you’re angry. And it’s very much okay to express that anger in the right places. But the podium during a press conference is not the right place. The “send” button is not the right place. 

Here are five strategies to help control anger during a crisis.

Take a breath. This is not a boxing match – you don’t have to say or do anything right this damn second. Breathe. Center yourself. Lower your blood pressure. Prepare to speak with a calm voice. Let others see that you’re not going to respond in anger.

Don’t take it personally. The crisis is almost certainly not about you personally. The precipitating causes have other motives in mind or no motive at all (Natural disasters and industrial accidents don’t rationalize their actions.), so take yourself out of it. If it hurts, well, that means you care – something has hit a nerve. Focus on someone else’s hurt, and that will help you to … 

Empathize. Others are hurting, physically, emotionally, financially. How can you help them? Being angry won’t help them? Caring about them will help them. Replace anger with outreach. 

Be thankful. No matter how bad a situation appears to be, there is always something to be thankful for. The heroic efforts of first responders. The willingness of employees to volunteer their time. The fact that you and your colleagues are here to respond and recover.

Control what you can control. Coach Wilcox is focused on getting the young men in his football program ready for the upcoming season. Everything about the Pac 12’s collapse and the university’s future is beyond his authority and ability. Focusing on things beyond one’s control pushes one toward victimhood, and that’s rarely an effective crisis response strategy. Focus on what you can do, however small it may be, and take positive steps forward.

Anger is a perfectly natural instinctive response to crisis, but it seldom makes for a good crisis response. Controlling your own anger helps not only you to find the best path forward but also helps those around you keep their anger in check. An effective crisis leader is the mast, not the storm. 

Need help? Kith facilitates crisis preparedness workshops that will help your company attain the clarity, trust and speed you need to respond confidently – no dithering! – to any crisis. We’d be happy to have a conversation about how we can help your company be ready to chart an effective course to reputation protection.

Jeff Blaylock

Jeff is an experienced strategic communications and public affairs professional who has advised organizations through challenging media and political environments, public affairs campaigns, reputation management, message development and crises.