Channeling Anger into Better Relationships

I remember the first time I raised my voice in a professional environment. I had been conducting field research in rural areas of Pakistan, and had been duly warned that the extent of the political economy issues would affect getting anything done, let alone work. I think perhaps I chose not to believe this in earnest.

The task itself was pretty routine; collect some data and report back to me that evening. When the evening came and passed, I let it go, equating it with work pressure or general tardiness. I sent the field research coordinator a message asking him for an update and a good time to call. No response. When the second evening came and went, I decided to try and expedite the process and set a precedent for future communication. When he picked up my call on the second attempt, rather than start with some pleasantries and build a rapport throughout the conversation, I confronted him straight away about his lack of communication and professionalism. At the time, I considered this light handed, since behaviour of this sort in an Australian environment would have been dealt with even more directly and bluntly. After the conversation was over, I even felt a sense of relief and peace that justice had been meted out and sanity had been restored. I proceeded to not hear from him for the next three days. After an existential crisis, and slumping in and out of despair, my colleague approached me with an update. It turned out the field researcher had started a parallel conversation with him. The researcher was having serious issues at home: financial insecurity due to infrequent work, juggling multiple research studies, a land-related dispute in his area, and an illness in the family had all hit at once. If only I had been more aware, starting my relationship with getting to know him and his issues, and then regularly enquiring and tailoring research requirements based on his situation, he would have been much more responsive, and data would have been collected much more efficiently.

Certain things get taken for granted in Australia. The most basic tasks, like paying your taxes, renewing your driver’s license, or opening a bank account are now done online in a quite seamless manner, compared to the rest of the world. In Pakistan, these activities can send people in circles. In fact, many private sector organisations allocate certain employees solely for the purpose of expediting this process. Those outside of the private sector have to depend on social networks, and those with minimal social capital are at the mercy of the powers that be.

Getting work done was similarly plagued with political economy issues, even though they were subtler and more nuanced. When building a business relationship, the clout of the person your transacting with had to be gauged, and based on that, wording, tone, and assertiveness had to be tailored substantially. This was a far cry from my experience in Australia where academically and professionally one could be much more straightforward (blunt even), and business relationships were output driven.

Getting used to this new dynamic in Pakistan had a significant teething period. Initially I would assertively request for certain outputs from stakeholders, internal and external, and expect timely results. My requests would fall on deaf ears, or rather on indifferent ears. “Who was I?”, “How long have I had a relationship with you?”, and “What sort of relationship do we have?”, were not questions I thought important to gauge and answer in order to get certain (and sometimes basic) tasks done.

This resulted in a lot of pent up anger. Was it the Pakistan government’s lack of social safety nets which led people to build their own social networks and work almost exclusively through them? Was it the indifference of a country slipping in and out of socio-economic, geo-political uncertainty that caused such indifference? Or was corruption and nepotism, which created vested interests, deeply ingrained in the culture? Whatever it was, I found it debilitating.

After much soul searching, crystal balling, and philosophising, I lamented my case to a couple of my friends who had also studied and worked overseas and returned to Pakistan. They gave me an alternate perspective of social and professional roadblocks and how one must channel that anger into intimacy in order to build social bonds and professional output.

The business culture I faced in Pakistan was in fact a mixture of all 3 issues: socio-economic and geopolitical uncertainty, systemic corruption and nepotism, and a lack of social safety nets. However, it also wasn’t as black and white as that. Pakistan is a young country, which has gone through a bloody partition, multiple military coups, and many cross-border tussles. Many of the inhabitants have had to build their lives from the ground up, multiple times, with little or no support from the state. Yes, this has resulted in a sense of initial suspicion and tentativeness when building new relationships, but once the effort has been made, the resulting bonds are more robust and fruitful than one could have imagined.

Rather than channelling that anger through pushy and aggressive verbal and non-verbal modes, I first had to see people as people rather than employees or transactional touch points. When starting a tough conversation, or one preceded by a lack of two-way communication, I started the conversation by asking why the said task wasn’t done and asking for suggested remedies immediately. This is juxtaposed to asking about the person and then the task and whether there were any work or personal issues they wanted to discuss and get guidance on. That in itself changes the relationship from that of a colleague, to a friend, mentor, and confidante. The emotional buy-in leads to a better relationship and more effective and efficient output. It’s better to invest in relationships, rather than compromise them for short term results.

When conducting field research, stakeholder engagement is critical in many of these areas. That consisted of meeting those involved, finding out about them, their families, their communities, and their thoughts and aspirations. This went just as much for urban locales, where village settings were exchanged for urban sprawls, but the concept remained the same.

As an Australian, growing up in a country with strong protection and promotion of citizen’s economic and social well being, this experience led me to reflect on my sense of entitlement, stemming from the expectation that the state would provide everything, and failure to do so gave me the right to direct my anger towards them. I realised that globally, whether Pakistan or Australia, a country in strife or prosperity, it is social relationships, networks and one’s accumulative social capital, which greatly helps tasks (personal and professional) being accomplished, progress being made, and feelings of anger being tempered. Working through social networks doesn’t necessarily mean corruption and nepotism (an Australian viewpoint I had ingrained), but in many ways streamlines the trust between the two parties.

When I now reflect on feelings of Australian outrage on trains running a few minutes late, or internet dropping out for a little while, I reflect on Pakistani society, much of which has to forage for water, electricity, and other basic amenities. Most of this foraging is facilitated by social connections, which in turn keep society functioning.

This is not to say that Australian anger isn’t justified or should be vilified. If anything, it is symptomatic of a robust system of providing social and economic benefits, and a sense of accountability from those who should provide it. Pakistan doesn’t provide what could be seen as basics, but it does provide an alternate narrative on life, one that creates intimate social relationships, which help one get through whatever life throws at them. I started to feel that both cultures had aspirational elements to pick up and run with.

My understanding of anger was very much an Australian individualistic one, where the parts of the engine should be working seamlessly. Anything short of that, requires an overhaul, and befits anger, leading to entitlement. My experience in Pakistan showed that anger at a personal level solves little, at least when internalised and passed onto the person you’re interacting with. Better to channel that anger into building relationships and moving forward.