Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Leading by Using Emotions

Many years ago, I was helping a colleague set up for a very important presentation. As guests streamed into the meeting room, I became increasingly frustrated because I couldn't get the two slide projectors focused (Slide projectors? It was a long time ago). Finally, just before the presentation was about to begin, one of the guests pointed out that I had the side-by-side projectors focused on opposite screens. I had been trying to focus one projector while looking at the other (i.e., wrong) screen. I felt like an idiot. I also realized that I did not have the emotion of frustration, it had me. How often do your emotions have you?

Emotional intelligence (EI) is defined as "the ability to carry out accurate reasoning about emotions and the ability to use the emotions and emotional knowledge to enhance thought.” (1) 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. (1) 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

Other blogs discussed the first skill - how to perceive your emotions accurately. Let us now turn to helping you improve the second EI skill - using your emotions to get in the right mood, prioritize your thinking, and improve decision-making.

How we feel affects how we think. In the opening story, I was feeling frustrated because I was unable to accomplish my goal. (What is frustration but an obstacle in the way of a goal?) If I had put myself in the right frame of mind, I probably would have been able to enhance my thinking and solve my problem. Researchers tell us that specific moods facilitate specific modes of thinking. (2) If you are in a positive mood, it is easier to generate novel ideas. When you're in a negative mood, you tend to focus on details. (3) I was in a negative mood and therefore over-focused on one projector. If I had used my emotions as described below, instead of being used by them, I'm quite sure I would have been able to make a better decision.

Here is how four major emotions affect our thinking:

1. Happiness. Professors Caruso and Salovey tell us that positive moods result in solutions that are more creative. The downside of being upbeat is that you may overlook details and solve problems poorly.

2. Fear. Believe it or not, fear can be quite useful. For example, have you ever had a tinge of fear when embarking on a new venture? Something just didn't feel right. It may have been fear telling you that something was amiss. Remember, emotions are information.

3. Anger. Anger often gets a bad rap. Nevertheless, there are times to be angry. Anger is a feeling about focus. It targets our energy on a perceived threat. It can also give us energy. Aristotle pointed out that anyone could be angry. But to have the right amount of anger, at the right time, about the right things and directed at the right person, that's the key.

4. Surprise. Surprise, like anger, is an attention getter. In this case, however, our attention is on gathering new information. It's when we become "all of ears."

To use emotions well, we need to be able to generate the feelings we want when we want them. To teach us how to create the right feeling on demand, we turn to HollyWEIRD, Oops, I mean Hollywood (which is only about 5 miles from my home). I’ve adapted the method acting approach, pioneered by Russian director Constantin Stanislavsky and recommended by Professors Caruso and Salovey, to help you harness your emotions:

1. Relax. Close your eyes. Find a quiet, peaceful place in your imagination. Create a rich mental representation of this serene scene by imagining it with complete vivid and detailed objects, sounds, and smells. Use all your senses to relax into the scene.

2. Recall an emotion. Now it is time to guide your imagination to an emotional scene. Which emotion will help you create the thinking that you need in the moment to make a better decision? Use the four emotion descriptions above to help. For example, if you are working on a detail-oriented project and gathering new information, you might want to recall a memory that contains the emotion of surprise. Maybe you could think of a surprise award or party. Whatever it is, your recollection should be meaningful to you, sensory rich, and full of the emotion you are accessing.

3. Reaffirm the emotion. Use affirmations to anchor the emotion by repeating statements (to yourself if others are near) that are consistent with the feeling you're creating.

If you want to use your emotions instead of allowing them to use you as I did in the opening story, try these ideas. How surprised will you be when your emotions begin helping you become a better leader because you make better decisions?

Keep on stretching,


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

2. 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 41 - 51.

3. Giora Keinan: Decision-Making Under Stress: Scanning Both Alternatives Under Controllable and Uncontrollable Threats, ‘Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,’ volume 52, number 3, 1987, 639 -- 643.

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