As an executive coach, I preach the importance of knowing oneself in both your abilities and areas that might need some work. Understanding these areas can help you overcome unintentional personal behaviors standing in the way of your success.

I wrote about Questions some time ago. One of my readers commented:

“I worked in a company where the policy was, ‘No dumb questions, only dumb answers!’ But I still get irritated by some questions.”

I understood exactly how my reader felt. It reminded me of several situations where a leader’s irritability can become a barrier to the goal of excellence.

What irritates you says something about your natural personality traits. Sources of irritation can often be a portal into these natural strengths and weaknesses.

The Workplace Big 5 Profile, the personality assessment I use with my coaching clients, identifies the five supertraits of an individual. These include:

      N: Need for Stability

      E: Extraversion

      O: Originality

      A: Accommodation

      C: Consolidation

Irritability is a subtrait of the supertrait Need for Stability in your personality. The frequency of experiencing anger and irritability scores on a continuum called Intensity. The continuum stretches from “usually calm” to “occasionally heated” and finally to “quick temper” or Reactive.

Having a high score on Intensity, and other aspects of our Need for Stability supertrait, is not described as “heart healthy.” In addition to being hard on one’s arteries, a person with unmanaged high Intensity, or Reactive, might be perceived as Angry (at best) by those around him or her.

If you are in a leadership role and experience frequent annoyance, irritability, and demonstrative temper flares, let me suggest an exercise that might be useful:

  • Spend the next two weeks doing nothing different but observing your irritation.
  • Write down every time you feel the least bit annoyed and what set you off.
  • At the end of the two weeks, review your entries to look for common triggers for irritation.

The idea behind this exercise is to give you concrete examples to enable greater self-awareness of your natural traits. Once you know your triggers, you can work on how you respond. Just because you are naturally reactive, doesn’t mean you always have to react naturally!

For example, some people might see a trigger for irritation to be questions, like the reader from my example. In that case, start paying attention to questions that irritate you. Is there a particular subject where questions provoke you? Does it happen with several people or one person in particular? What about the question is annoying; the tone of voice, the subject, the way the question is framed–or the person who is asking it?

Many people start to feel defensive if the questioner begins with the word “Why”. Perhaps it’s a topic where you’re feeling a little guilty or sensitive, and the “Why” triggers irritability in the form of defending your actions.

Or, if it’s the person asking the question, is that individual on your list of folks you’d rather not have working for you– does the question trigger that? Or do they have annoying personal habits you prefer not being around? It could be time for a private coaching session with the individual to address these concerns.

Whatever the case, it’s important to examine more carefully why the questions irritate you. If people ask you questions to learn from you and you find that irritating, they will quickly get the clue and stop asking—and stop learning.

It could be that questions aren’t a trigger for you. Notice how often in your list other situations irritate you and when. Are you more irritable in meetings or smaller groups? Is it when you are tired or hungry? Do you get more irritated by certain behaviors or actions? Understanding the triggers gives you clues on how to anticipate and manage your natural reaction.

Why is it important to control your natural reaction? It isn’t always, but in some cases, particularly the Reactive types, the natural reaction can be a damaging one. It can undermine your ability to be successful as a leader.

Body language is a magnificent example of a natural reaction undermining your leadership. It’s rare that others will be unaware you are annoyed. Reflect on what messages you send with your body language when irritated. Do you sigh when you hear a question you don’t like? Drop your shoulders or your gaze? What can you do to manage how you communicate irritation?

In the interpretation of an individual’s Big 5 scores, people that learn they score high on Intensity (Reactive) usually feel irritated when given that information. This results in many interesting discussions. Occasionally, if the score is extremely high, the response will be an angry outburst—while denying that his or her temper is a problem!

Once the irritation subsides, however, the individual is almost always glad to learn this sub-trait is not a character flaw but the way he or she is “wired.” They are also happy to hear there are some strategies to apply once one achieves greater self-awareness regarding their natural traits.

Of course, it’s possible some people think being irritable is the boss’s prerogative. If that’s true for you, I suggest you reconsider, that is, if you want to stay the boss—and be effective!

What strategies for dealing with workplace irritability work for you? I’d welcome your insight below in the comments.