Friday, October 3, 2008

Leading by Managing Emotions

Emotions are a feedback mechanism. The dictionary defines feedback as ‘information returned to the source.” Thus, emotions contain information for us. They are meant to help us manage our attention. If you do not manage your emotions and pay attention to the emotions of those around you, you will miss an enormous amount of information necessary for effective leadership.

Emotional intelligence (EI) is "the ability to carry out accurate reasoning about emotions and the ability to use the emotions and emotional knowledge to enhance thought.” (2) In their extensive review of EI research, Professor John Mayer and his colleagues reported that high EI scores predict better social relations, decision-making, negotiation results, and long-term leadership success. (2) There are four major emotional skills outlined by Professor Mayer:

I. Perceive the emotions

II. Use the emotions

III. Understand the emotional future

IV. Manage the emotions

Previous blogs discussed the first three skills. We will now focus on improving the final EI skill - your ability to manage emotions. Leaders who are strong in this skill have good emotional self-control, think clearly even when they are experiencing strong emotions, and make decisions using both their heart and their head. This does not mean they don't have passionate feelings. On the contrary, they are passionate. However, they understand that a man in passion sometimes rides a mad horse. They temper their passion with reason. Here are several strategies to help you do the same:

1. Write about emotions. Try the Morning Pages technique popularized by Julia Cameron in her book ‘The Artist’s Way,’ First thing in the morning, write three pages by hand, non-stop, and fast. The key is to keep your hand moving no matter what splats out onto the pages. If it takes you much more than 20 minutes, you’re thinking too much. Morning Pages are NOT prose, poetry, or journaling. Don't show them to or share them with anyone. Write for insight about your emotions.

2. Exercise for emotional balance. Research has shown that exercise is essential to managing our moods. You don't have to be an athlete or engage in vigorous activity to manage your emotions more effectively. Brisk walking, cycling, swimming, or any aerobic activity conducted at least 20 minutes for a minimum of three times per week will suffice. Don't take my word for it, try it yourself. What I write may be interesting, but it's what you do that is powerful.

3. Stay open to emotions. Because emotions contain information, closing ourselves off to certain emotions decreases essential feedback. We seldom shut out positive emotions. Yet, ALL emotions contain information. If you find yourself shutting down when uncomfortable situations arise, try a technique psychologists call systematic desensitization:

A. Determine which emotion you would like to work on.

B. Create a list of the various situations that tend to cause that emotion.

C. List the situations from the least to the most emotionally intense.

D. Use your imagination to relax (e.g., progressive muscle relaxation, calm scene...)

E. Generate a calm and pleasant mood.

F. Picture the least intense emotional situation.

G. When you find yourself becoming tense, go back to the relaxing step (D) and then generate a calm mood (E).

The goal is to visualize the emotional scene and stay open to the emotion. You begin with the easiest scenes and move slowly toward the more difficult ones.

4. Change your emotion. Do you ever wish you could change your emotion in a split second? If you're like me, and I know I am, that would be a great trick. Here's the real trick, you already do this. Haven't you been upset and then you gotten a phone call, which of course you answer pleasantly? You already do this. Perhaps not consciously, but you do it. If you want to do it consistently and well, use a variation of the systematic desensitization process:

A. Determined which emotion you would like to change.

B. Select a situation that causes this emotion.

C. Use your imagination to picture that situation.

D. Bring the emotion that you want to change into a situation you have imagined.

E. Think of an interruption that could occur in that situation, such as a phone call, knock on the door, instant message, someone calling your name...

5. Reason with emotion. Sometimes emotions overwhelm us because we generalize them. This is what pessimistic thinkers do. They extend the negative emotion into broad areas of their lives. This is the quintessential “bring the office home” individual. I knew one executive who allowed anger at work to pervade all areas of his life. We all generalize emotions occasionally. Here's one strategy to handle it:

A. Determine which emotion you tend to exaggerate.

B. Think of a recent situation in which this emotion was present.

C. Answer these questions or use Morning Pages to help address them:

- was it reasonable to feel this way?

- do you often feel this way?

- what do you think about feeling this way?

- why do you feel this way?

- what truly caused the feeling?

- would others interpret this situation the same way?

- could someone interpret events differently?

- would it be beneficial if you chose to think of this differently?

- how could you think of this situation and the emotion differently?

- how might you adapt the systematic desensitization (3) or change your emotion (4) techniques described above to help you deal with this generalization.

These five strategies can help you be a better leader by managing emotions. Adapt them to your situations and style. Let me know how it goes.

Keep on stretching,


1. David Caruso and Peter Salovey: ‘The Emotionally Intelligent Manager: How To Develop and Use The Four Key Emotional Skills of Leadership,’ Josse-Bass, San Francisco, California, 2004, page 66.

2. John Mayer and colleagues: Human Abilities: Emotional Intelligence, ‘Annual Review of Psychology,’ 2008, 59: 507 -- 536.

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