Many of the people I work with have expressed a struggle to be able to maintain equilibrium in the heat of a highly emotionally charged situation. Whether it is facing a bias in a meeting or a personal conflict in life, many of us feel if we are going to be any good at being a “leader” (or being our best self) we need to be able to handle these challenges consistently and flawlessly. That is a lot of pressure to put on oneself. Unfortunately, many of us have witnessed, or been struck by, a sustained judgment based on a singular moment in time. So you cried ONCE in a meeting when someone tore a strip off of you. Or maybe you lost your cool with a colleague who was voracious (even unkind) in putting forward his or her singular vision. This is not something that happens every day, not 90% of the time, but in a very small fraction of the time spent interacting personally and professionally with others...when on that one occasion you just did not have it in you to pull off your best self. Yet that is how others are remembering you. Even if this did not happen to you personally, we've all seen it happen to others. Hence the pressure to “never” do these things at work or in front of others (i.e. “flawless”).
This is something that has impacted everyone in their life and career (directly or indirectly), which is why it is the item that comes out of everyone’s “shame closet” when they are working with a professional to help them bring forward all of their potential at work and in life. We all have something we are afraid will “pop” out under stress, or when we least expect it; it happens at home more often than we’d like (yelling, tears, retreating into silence, acute sarcasm…put your “go to” pressure release valve here…). So we KNOW it could happen. But living in fear of this eventuality is not going to make it go away, that only adds to the pressure you put on yourself and let’s face it, you likely have enough pressure in your life already. Plus, pressure does not leave room for compassion, and compassion is exactly what is called for in these situations. Compassion for you and for the other person…regardless which one of you is having the bad day. So how do you stay in the thick of it and keep your cool? Here is my favourite “pressure release valve”, one you can take with you and use anywhere, and without anyone else knowing you are using it. It is called H. A. L. T. (some of you may recognize it as I re-purposed it from my own journey as a parent), which stands for hungry, angry, lonely or tired and is a quick way to scan for an objective reason why you (or someone else) may be being unreasonable.
Hungry. We can all usually tell when we are hungry; there are obvious signs (tummy growls, feeling pangs of hunger). But what happens when you feel full but do not have the right nutritional balance to allow you the energy needed to manage your emotions? If you ate fast food for lunch (and skipped breakfast) chances are the reason you blew up at someone is because you just didn’t have the “high-octane fuel” you needed in your belly to deal with an unexpectedly difficult circumstance. It could also be the reason someone else is being difficult or argumentative with you. Give yourself (and others) a break; it could be the hunger talking.
Angry. This one is also obvious (on the surface). We know what it feels like to be angry…but what happens when “latent” anger creeps into other parts of our life? Being angry with your spouse because of something he/she did (or didn’t) do in the morning might just be making an appearance as impatience (or another unwelcome behaviour) in your first meeting of the day. It is hard to separate work from home, even harder when you have strong emotions swirling around in your system. Check in. Is another part of your day showing up here? Because if it is, it could mean your normal thresholds for patience and clear-headedness are not at their usual excellent levels. Sometimes, when someone else is being inexplicably annoying, this may have happened to him or her; recognize when someone else is displaying less-than-optimal etiquette, it may have nothing to do with you, it could just be misappropriated anger showing up unexpectedly (and they likely don’t even know they are doing it).
Lonely. Loneliness can strike, even in a room full of people, especially where there is no emotional or social connection (many of us can empathize with that feeling). Loneliness shows up when we are not being “heard”. When our opinions are maligned or ignored, when we feel we do not have a “place at the table” or a “voice” that is being recognized, eventually it leads to other not-so-great feelings that impact the way we are showing up at work (or at home). When we are experiencing unexpected resistance, reticence, pessimism or blatant rudeness, sometimes it is because the person with whom we are trying to converse is feeling unheard (i.e. lonely). The best course forward is to check in, not by asking them directly, but by making a compassion statement reflecting that they have been heard; “I hear what you just said, that must be very frustrating”. You are neither agreeing nor disagreeing, with what the other person is saying. You are demonstrating that you heard what they said, and applying empathy. Watch your conversation turn around (for the better) from that point forward.
Tired. Studies have proven that, as adults, we do not consistently get the 8 hours of unbroken sleep that are needed to keep us alert and balanced throughout our day (http://www.helpguide.org/articles/sleep/how-much-sleep-do-you-need.htm). Getting it once or twice a week is not enough, nor is 8 hours of sleep broken up by wakefulness (i.e. napping for two hours each evening after work does not negate the effects of a late bedtime). When we are tired it impacts how well we react and make decisions throughout our day. In fact, a chronic lack of sleep can compromise us at the same level as being intoxicated. So the next time you are yawning, fatigued or feeling like you have no energy to deal with the challenges of your day, count back the number of hours of quality sleep you had over the past week. Coming up short? The fix is to get to bed. Know that you are not alone and give others the benefit of sleep deprivation before deciding they are an emotional wreck.
What this points to is that life is full of things we cannot control. Sick children that keep us up at night, poor diet because of a hectic schedule, etc. Using H.A. L. T. acknowledges that none of us are perfect, that we are all allowed to have bad days, and not be judged by them forever. Compassion is the best tool we have to allow ourselves the space and time needed to acknowledge when we are not at our best…and to extend that same kindness to others.
There is an interesting approach to cleaning out our physical spaces based on tenets of Shinto, an ancient Japanese religion, conceived by Marie Kondo (http://www.cbc.ca/radio/tapestry/a-spark-of-spirit-in-everything-1.3462036/by-tidying-so-much-i-ve-learned-all-things-have-spirit-in-them-marie-kondo-1.3465772). Simply stated, her guidance around what to keep when tidying your home (or more rigorously sorting and organizing) is to pick up the things you own, touch them, and if they “spark joy” for you, to keep them. If they do not, thank them for their service to you and, let them go. The underlying assumption is that each item has spirit, something subtle but tangible you can connect to. It’s an interesting concept around what we in North America tend to think of as inanimate objects, yet we bring many of these inanimate things into our spaces for a reason, don’t we?
This is a beautiful and simply expressed way to discern what has continued meaning (or use) for us as individuals, and what does not. It is also an amazing way to look not only at the objects you surround yourself with (at home or at work), but a unique lens to view how you spend your time each day. Does each act "spark joy" for you? Could it? How are you connecting to it? So many of us go through our days striving to complete "to do" lists, to get every box checked in what is always a limited amount of time, we seldom connect to the moment. We seldom recognize the care and attention that goes into each click of our keyboards, the stroke of our pens, movement of our hands, or our thoughts and actions. Yet the majority of us pursue things with passion, attention, and good intent. That being the case, is there then the potential for each act to "spark joy"?
This is a timely question for many of us as we re-think what is going on in each of our days. When working with clients contemplating questions of life and what it all means (especially in concert with work and career) I often ask them to create two lists; one list of the things in their day that requires effort, and one of the things that feel effortless. Try it, it takes a fair bit of reflection to create the "effortless" list, but you’ll see some surprising results when you do. There often ends up being a third list, a list of things that were once effortless and now require effort to complete…a list of things most clients would like to see return to effortless. The interesting thing is that when we cram our lives full of responsibility almost everything begins to require effort, and fewer things remain effortless. Case in point one client had placed "falling asleep at night" on her list of things that required effort. Is it on yours too?
What if we looked at how we filled our days the way Marie Kondo would have us look at the objects with which we fill our homes? What if prior to each act we pursued, we thought about whether or not it could spark joy? Then, what if we gently let go of the things in our day that do not have the potential to spark joy? What if we let go of them by either stopping them altogether (as one client has done, she no longer chases daily reports from her team), or handing them off to someone for whom they have potential to spark a measure of joy (giving our children more autonomy in their routines, and being OK with the results)? What if we did this with gratitude for what they have taught us, but letting them go all the same because they no longer nourish a part of us? What if we consciously looked for more joy in the moments of everything we chose to keep? I will admit that in hearing the clip from CBC's Tapestry, highlighting Marie Kondo’s approach, I finally understood why I am contented by cleaning out my dishwasher. It is something I do with care and love, honoring very simple things in our family’s life, like Storm Trooper mugs and crystal wineglasses. This act of drudgery is in fact one that nourishes me on some level, knowing I am carefully putting away things we use as a family when we are together, each with a happy memory attached to it; each providing me with a little spark of joy (and the act of act of caring for these things multiplies that joy). Yes, it is a mundane task, and yet it holds something tangible.
Now, with that example firmly implanted in my mind, I am interested in looking through my day to see how what I invest my time and energy in sparks joy for me (and what does not…and why). I expect to be surprised, but only when I am being open-minded. Duty and responsibility are always hovering in the background, but by staying in the moment, connecting with it, I may feel that spark of joy (where once there was none). Perhaps it is this small act of attention that creates the conditions for a spark. Perhaps it is in slowing down and creating more space to appreciate each moment that allows there to be more joy. Perhaps, if I am feeling more sparks of joy in what I do throughout all my days, I can then share this joy with others. May what you touch spark joy.
Carleen Hicks is a certified Integral™ Professional Coach and EQ-i 2.0 Practitioner. She uses a unique perspective from her experience as a Leadership Coach and HR Professional to help people reach their full potential. See more of her blogs on Everyday Potential at http://www.chhr.ca and check out her Resources page to find great books, blogs, and web sites that support professional growth and development.
How many of us have been given the message “don’t take your emotions to work”? Maybe it was indirectly imparted to you though social pressure, or more firmly implanted in you by your family or on your first job. One of my first “real” jobs was in law enforcement, in uniform…no one had to tell me not to be emotional at work, the workplace culture said it all. I empathize with friends, family and clients who have been told through feedback (or in a performance review) that they are “too emotional”; that if they want to be considered for leadership, promotion or accepted “as equals” in a team they are to leave emotions at home.
How do you do that exactly?
No one wants to cry at work, or become so angry you are visibly shaking, so full of shame you cannot look another person in the eye. But it happens, it’s happened to me, it has happened to you…it happens. You cannot leave your emotions at the front door of your house when you leave for work. Over time we all learn how to adjust our behaviours to better manage our emotions so we are less at risk of having them overwhelm us. Truthfully, there is an acceptable range of emotions we know we can exercise at work and elsewhere (smiles, laughter, frowns, expressions of confusion or even surprise to name a few), but they are fairly neutral, they are safe. You may have looked away when another person expressed emotions beyond the socially acceptable thresholds, either embarrassed on his/her behalf or afraid that if you allowed yourself to feel those same emotions in concert with that person they may become contagious. From public displays of affection to lost tempers we generally like our emotions to be “in check”.
Hence the conformity pressure to ensure that when you go to work you are not overtly emotional. Recognizing it is important for everyone to be comfortable, we should not foster “drama” at work, but that is not the only emotional output that is being discouraged, it is any strong emotion that has a chance to make someone uncomfortable. It is also known that not all emotions are created equal - it is a sign of a healthy workplace when you can hear laughter, witness camaraderie and see other displays of social currency happening effortlessly between people. However, crying, anger, visible frustration are much less welcome. Taking a polarized stance on the presence of blatant emotions, particularly at work, is unhealthy and as leaders we need to be aware of what this looks like – often it is made out to be very black and white – you could describe it as polarized. Miriam Webster defines the word polarize as: “to cause (people, opinions, etc.) to separate into opposing groups”. You are in or out; with us or against us. You can either manage your emotions or you can’t. Once painted with the brush of being “emotional” it can be difficult to shake the image, and like many things in life, it sometimes takes only one public instance (of crying, loosing your temper or being visibly upset) to be labeled. Clearly it is not OK to verbally unload on people regularly in meetings, or burst into tears every time your idea is overlooked. But there is an important role for our emotions, both at work and in society, that we should consider giving more credence to.
Emotions are what make us human. They also make us creative, curious, innovative, inquisitive, courageous, thoughtful, vocal…the list goes on. We need all these things to make us good at what we do, at work, at home and in our communities. Without our emotions there would be no volunteers, no commitment to something bigger then ourselves (either an idea, a mission, a product/service or a belief). Some of the best experiences that have ever happened to us as a society were because someone got emotional. One example that comes to mind is Rosa Parks; hers was foremost an emotional response the day she’d had enough and refused to move seats on that bus. She probably did not leave her house that day thinking that was what she was going to do, it happened in a moment, an emotional response to an unconscionable situation. It was probably one of the hardest things she ever did – staying with that initial emotional response, which she knew to be right, despite the fact that likely every fibre of her being was telling her to just move seats. But she didn’t. Her emotional response and courage has allowed our society to become better than it was prior to her momentous act.
What if we took a more open-minded view of emotions at work? What if instead of polarizing the happenstance of being overtly emotional by characterizing it as “bad” we looked at it from the perspective of a duality. Duality is defined as “having two parts, often with opposite meanings, like the duality of good and evil” (Vocabulary.com). There is a role for us to play as leaders to bring duality to emotions and work. The two can happily co-exist, even when emotions are overt, running high or are outside of our comfort zone. If we view these types of emotions as demonstrations of passion, interest, dedication to service and look at them with compassion rather than derision, we build relationships to emotions, and to each other, that are more resilient - leading organizations that are more resilient. There is a large part for us to play as leaders to both model and champion this duality, even when there is discomfort present (for ourselves and others). It is up to us to discern how best to enable duality around emotions, allowing them to become balanced within the context of both work and the needs of those present.
As a society, as employers and as leaders we need to better understand the positive role that a full range of emotions play in our society and workplaces. We are never going to find a way to keep our emotions at home while we go to work. Think carefully before using the label “emotional”; we should not see this as a negative trait that prevents someone from being taken seriously, promoted or respected. Practicing duality allows us to rise above narrow points of view, to explore, be curious and make room for a deeper and wider range of expression and discussion, enabling balanced use of emotions at work, or wherever we choose to go in life.
P. S. We are seeing more acceptance of the presence of emotions at work in society (you know something is going mainstream when it shows up in media) as this great example from Tangerine demonstrates: http://www.marketingmag.ca/brands/tangerine-works-the-emotive-angle-166343.
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I believe in giving back to others in many tangible ways. When I learn something new, or see something that might help others, I share it using my blog and website. You can always find my latest blog entries here, on Facebook or Linked In.