After working with several key executive clients on this challenge recently, I am reminded and inspired to write about the important role that emotions can play when faced with key decisions.
While much has been written and said about the need for leaders to tap into intuition and deal creatively with ever-increasing complex situations, not much has been said about HOW to actually go about building the personal/leadership capacities to help with that.
Most business leaders and professionals in our western culture are systematically conditioned to control and even avoid/deny our emotions in the way we conduct ourselves in general and in the way we approach important decisions, in particular. How often have we heard or even said to someone else: “don’t let your emotions get in the way” or “you’re too emotional” or “if you want to go far in this company, you have to learn how to let things bounce off you”.
This way of looking at emotions often strikes fear into us as professionals with the predictable response that shows up in our ‘Way of Leading/Being” which is to hide how we truly feel to the point where we sometimes don’t even know what we feel anymore. But that’s OK we tell ourselves because the best decisions are based on sound logic founded on sound methodical analysis and reasoning. And this is where I say: “True, but partial” (i.e., incomplete; leaves important stuff out!). So in this article we look at a sampling of a leader’s situation where utilizing energy as energy-in-motion significantly increased leadership effectiveness.
Client Case Profile
• Senior professional with extensive business experience
• Subject matter expert in her field
• Has received several promotions for this technical expertise
• Sits on several professional/association boards and committees
• Has received feedback from peers that she is too rigid and structured in making decisions, often preferring to make decisions to difficult issues on her own with limited consultation with peers/team members
• This does not mean that she does not hold regular team meetings; on the contrary, she regularly asks for discussion and solicits opinion but seems to have limited capacity to receive it openly and certainly does not utilize it when one looks at the actual decisions made by her.
In working with this client, the Topic first presented as needing to be accomplished was: “How to make more effective decisions”.
Exploring this ‘need’ further, it became apparent that the real challenge was her difficulty with (strong) emotions (her own as well as the emotions of others). As soon as the conversations aroused emotion such as when they included potential for controversy or conflict, this leader immediately went into secret shut-down mode. She had become so crafty at managing (hiding) this challenge that she did not give off much indication of this emotional ‘constriction’. On the outside, she seemed very composed and professional. Over time, this adversely affected her team’s ability to contribute to key decisions. As a consequence, some of her key decisions were less than optimal and her team was rendered ineffective and dysfunctional.
What We Uncovered
What this client discovered was that she had an underlying (false) belief that essentially went something like this: “Emotions are the enemy”. This belief translated into a Way of Leading/Being that meant “I never lose my head” and “I always maintain my composure come hell or high water”… “I will not drown with the rest of them”…
So when the metaphorical water got turbulent and murky, she quickly ran to the high water to save herself from the embarrassment of falling and being swept away. She cared about the others along the river bank but knew that she had to save herself first before she could attempt to save them. This meant that she essentially acted alone when, at crucial times, others needed to be seen and heard (‘saved’).
A Taste of the Developmental Work
A key break-through for this client was seeing how she treated emotions as the enemy (to be avoided or kept at bay) and at the same time learning to tap into and utilize emotions as simply “energy-in-motion”. That is, energy arises and falls within/through our body all the time. We can feel excited, afraid, angry, confused, joyful, sad, ‘high’, ‘low’, spent, etc. If we label how we are feeling as “spent”, for instance, what does th is mean if we view it as simply energy-in-motion? How about that “my energy level right now is low and I need to rest and recover” versus I push and push and push through only to do it again tomorrow on a few hours of sleep. This statement highlights at least two critical capacities: 1) awareness, and 2) appropriate response. I need to tune into the fact that I have low energy in the moment and then I must be able to make the correct choice(s) that allow me to replenish, bringing the energy back up again.
1. Building Awareness
First I had the client observe her hidden belief in action over the course of a number of days according to specific instructions for how to go about doing that. Along the way, she answered pertinent reflection questions designed to draw out her way of making meaning of things and to discover the extent to which her underlying belief system was translating into how she went about conducting herself in relationship to her Topic of concern. With this observational exercise and subsequent awareness building practices/questions, she saw the extent to which her Current Way of Being/Leading was responsible for her current challenge.
2. Building Capacity
One of the tenets of our leadership development work is that “insight is necessary but not typically sufficient for sustainable change”. Therefore, at the same time as we help to build awareness, we focus on cultivating the capacities (“muscles”) necessary for change to be sustained.
As an example, one of the exercises this client undertook was to be able to tune into and name the emotion(s) arising for her at the moment that she was starting to feel constricted or feeling defensive. At first, she struggled to simply name the emotion (afraid, excited, angry, etc.). Over time, she was able to express herself in a way that was grounded, present and true to her needs, priorities and concerns while at the same time engage with her executive team in a way that allowed them to feel and be valuable contributors.
More effective decision making, increased team engagement, increased energy, greater work-life balance.