It has been a week of strongly held, fiercely expressed and often diametrically opposed emotions. Long repressed fury and grudges have kept pace with eulogies. Whatever your intellectual or political stance one thing has been clear. People have an enormous capacity for emotional reaction and very little ability to be empathic with others. In every leadership situation, how people feel is of critical importance. It has the ability to make or break initiatives and yet emotions are often given the least consideration in the grand scheme of things.
Time and time again, leaders have been surprised at the howl of rage that accompanies their announcements. They don’t see it coming: Bob Diamond’s – no doubt logical to him – view that it was time to move on, sent people ravening for blood. People’s feelings were not yet sufficiently appeased to allow them to let go their anger. Cameron’s ill chosen, Michael Winner catch phrase, ‘Calm down, dear’ inevitably provoked a paradoxical reaction. Strong leadership will provoke strong reactions. Professional leaders seek to recognise the emotions they will engender by their actions and will plan in advance how they can bring people with them by provoking positive and constructive feelings. In every situation, emotions are a data stream – leaders neglect them at their peril. Above all, they should never just hope they won’t happen. In order to be a truly emotionally intelligent leader, you have of course to start with yourself. ‘Aye, there’s the rub’ – Hamlet. Learning to recognise your own feelings, give them legitimacy and then deal with them appropriately is a precursor to being skilled at dealing with other people’s emotionally charged reactions.
Those at the most senior levels have classically been expected to demonstrate stiff upper lipped stoicism, play their cards close to their chests and indulge in what psychologists would usually describe as denial – often because of their fear of how others might perceive their responses. As a result, they can be disfunctional due to lack of emotional literacy. Science tells us that leads to pretty grim consequences for people’s health, well being and judgment. Recognising and categorising an emotion influences the emotional experience itself. For example correctly processing emotional reactions to traumatic events – e.g. loss of a job, restricted bonuses, delayed promotion – leads to health benefits, more adaptive behaviours, better relationships, faster results and better working memory. Being able to label feelings, makes people more magnanimous towards others. All of which contribute to success. Social psychologist James Pennebaker describes verbally labelling an emotion as much like applying a digital technology (language) to an analogue signal (emotion and the emotional experience). If an emotion remains in analogue form, it cannot be understood or conceptually tied to the meaning of an event. Once an experience is translated into language then it can be processed in a conceptual manner. It can be assigned meaning, coherence and structure. The traumatic event can therefore be assimilated, resolved and eventually forgotten. If this process does not happen, incomplete emotional processing has a deleterious effect on well-being, judgment and decision making. If you have time, catch the fascinating programme on Radio 4 on iPlayer to hear about Pennebaker’s work on Expressive writing. What we are not suggesting is that you let it all hang out. Quite the opposite! We think you owe it to yourself to take positive action to master a practical emotional approach to processing emotion and events. If you want to hear more about what you can do in fifteen minutes a day over four days to improve your emotional resilience, give us a call – 020 7036 8899 or drop us a line by return.