Emotion rears its ugly head

Dear leader: you’re being watched

There were twelve of us gathered around a makeshift conference table in one of our larger meeting rooms. Designers, marketers, developers and customer support reps had all come together to discuss the future of our product. Added to the mix were two of the company’s leadersmyself as the head of Marketing and my colleague, the head of Product & Engineering. 

As the ideas began to flow around the table, I felt excited by the momentum we’d gained. About an hour into the conversation however, I found myself at odds with its direction. Specifically, with the views being shared by the only other leader at the table. 

When I challenged my colleague (in a way that must have been overly verbose), he countered sharply, saying, “I’m trying to explain but you won’t shut up long enough for me to. You just keep talking and talking and talking.” 

I was stunned. As I wrestled with my emotions, I thought to myself, “Did he just say that to me―IN FRONT of all these people? Did the one person in this company that I respect more than anyone else just attack me in front of the team?” 

The room closed in on me, my face flushed with heat and my heart pounded in my ears. 

All eyes were on me (on both of us) eagerly watching to see what would happen next. 

Looking back, this was an ideal opportunity to lead by example and positively influence the direction of the conversation. But I was angry and hurt―incapable of logical thought. 

My vision blurred. As spots began to take over, I retaliated with, “Wow, that was a very asshole thing to say.”

I stood up, pushed my chair back and walked towards the door. Exit left (and as quickly as possible).

I was shocked by the emotionally charged words my colleague and I had exchanged. Challenging one another was part of our culture; it defined our daily interactions. But for some reason, that day we found ourselves doing it in a way that was surprisingly uncharacteristic for us and for our company. A way that didn’t take into account the impact of our behavior on those around us. 

“Shit, shit, shit,” I mumbled to myself as the door closed behind me. “I could have handled that much better. Ugh, I cannot imagine what the team thinks of me right now.”

After a few minutes pacing the hallway outside the meeting room, I found myself face-to-face with my colleague. He quickly apologized. I did the same. We hugged and laughed about our heated conversation and lightheartedly mocked our lack of leadership. 

As we re-entered the room together, we smiled and apologized to the rest of the team. Yet despite our sincere apologies and efforts to re-energize the room, the impact of our altercation remained. Our very public temper tantrum had stunned the room, killed momentum, dampened the mood and suffocated the previously creative conversation. Productivity came to an abrupt halt. The excitement we saw at the start of the meeting was gone and we weren’t getting it back.  

There are millions of stories like this one where a flicker of reactionary emotion ignites a full-fledged fire. Workplace triggers can easily activate the ugliest of emotions and cause us to show up in a way that is unproductive, demotivating and at times, hurtful. 

And employees are watching it all. In especially challenging situations, the ones where it’s often hardest to speak and act as the leader you want to be, that observation magnifies by a thousand. When we as leaders respond with heated hostility instead of thought and intention, we undercut whatever positive impact our leadership is having on our team to instead press play on the latest episode of a bad reality television show. Whether employees are entertained or mortified, it sucks away the energy you need to make good things happen. 

We enact this drama in our homes as well as at work. We fail to live into who we are intended to bethe leader, parent, friend, child and spouse whose presence adds value, creates calm and extracts purpose from struggle. And while conflict is unavoidable, we can do better in our response to it. 

To move from a state of emotional reaction to engaging in purposeful, intentional and healthy conflict requires us to first understand why our emotions get the best of us at the most inopportune times.

The Science Behind the Why

When we feel scared, attacked, upset or frustrated, our brain engages the amygdala, which controls our emotions. Located in the lower part of our brain, the amygdala activates what is called our fight-or-flight response (notice how I left the room after calling my fellow colleague an asshole?). More importantly, when engaged, the amygdala also disengages the upper part of the brain, the frontal lobes where rational decision-making happens. Our blood pressure goes up, we start to freak out and then BAM! We lose the ability to think intelligently and logically. 

In the very wise words of Bill Crawford, psychologist and author of Life from the Top of the Mind, “don’t bang brainstems” with your colleagues―instead, in the face of emotion, find your way to the top of the brain as quickly as possible. How we act when emotion shows up says a lot about who we are in the world. The good news is that we can actually rewire our brains so that emotion doesn’t sit in the driver’s seat. But doing so takes commitment and lots of practice.

Unleashing the Power of Logic

As leaders, parents and more, we have a responsibility to be the example and to help others navigate challenging situations. Whether we intend for them to or not, our words and actions carry with them considerable influence. For this reason, we owe our best to the people working tirelessly alongside us to make our companies successful and to the people we love; we simply cannot afford to take this responsibility lightly. 

I want to share the behaviors that have helped me regain control and honor this responsibility, by helping me meet life’s challenges with my full mind rather than just my amygdala. I also highly recommend reading Bill Crawford’s Life from the Top of the Mind in its entirety, as the behaviors that have most helped me come from his work. 

#1 Breathe and Count 

This is a simple yet powerful way to quickly engage the logical mind. Breathing is controlled by the brainstem, making it automatic (thank goodness!). When you count, you bring unconscious activity like breathing into the conscious realm. This engages the top of the mind, making you less reactive in the moment. For more ideas on how to use breathing the next time you feel your blood pressure start to rise, try a trick from the Navy SEAL’s playbook.

#2 Ask Questions 

Approaching life with curiosity is incredibly powerful, and some of my biggest professional breakthroughs have come from the toughest of questions (receiving and asking). Embracing the power of questions also gives us more authority over our emotions. In the experience I share above, I was caught completely off guard and felt personally attacked by my colleague’s words. Simply asking a question like, “Is that statement truly representative of how you see me in the world?” would have put our logical minds into play and us in control of our emotions. Practice asking questions when you feel your heart start to beat a little faster or your cheeks flush with heat. The physical reactions to emotion are the best reminders―then you know to cue the breathing and question asking! 

#3 Write. Declare. Imagine. 

Write down what it means to be a great leader (or parent). Declare those things to be true about yourself. Most importantly, declare it to those in your circle of trust (the best accountability tactic is social accountability). Then, imagine. Every day without fail, imagine yourself behaving in the way you most want to behave. Envision the toughest of interactions and visualize yourself moving through them with grace and discernment. Research shows that imagination is a powerful tool and can successfully shape how you react in the future. 

#4 Confess Your Failure

Acknowledging your own failures is one of the toughest things for us to do as leaders. It is also one of the most compelling and effective qualities you can add to your leadership repertoire. By giving your own mistakes the spotlight, you make it okay for others to do so as well. After confessing your professional or parental blunders, quickly follow with what you learned and what you’ll do differently next time around. Creating an environment where mistakes can be openly shared and processed (without fear of reparation, retaliation or humiliation) softens emotion’s blow, giving life to a culture where employees can practice responding in more productive ways.

#5 Assume Positive Intent

We live in a made-up world. It’s true! Oftentimes we jump to making up our own stories when there is missing information (and isn’t this usually the case?). More often than not, the story we make up is more dramatic, emotional and personally directed at us than the real story actually is. We may assume, for example, that an employee missed a deadline because she simply didn’t care enough (when in reality, she didn’t have the resources she needed). We may assume an employee attending the meeting virtually doesn’t respect our leadership as he huffs and puffs and rolls his eyes on the big screen (when in reality, his dog is under his feet and chewing on his new desk). We are all authors of the greatest tall tales, and these narratives can easily veer into negative territory. But what if instead, our go-to response was to assume the best of the other person in our story? In my own experience above, assuming the best of my colleague could have sounded something like this: “I know this person’s heart and I know he respects me. I wonder what’s going on that would trigger him to respond in that way.” When we start to wonder, we open the door to other possible realities and allow logic to work its magic. Much like asking questions, assuming positive intent helps us control the endless spinning of emotion and resulting false positives. In addition, fact-check your storytelling. I love Brené Brown’s challenge in her book Rising Strong to engage in real conversation when you find yourself making up stories. Start with, “The story I’m telling myself right now is…” and allow the other person to tell you if that story is really true.  

#6 Wait to Act

The front-runner in my list of tools comes from one of my most favorite people in the world. Friend and TSheets colleague J.D. Mullin is the master of waiting to react. In most situations there is no good reason (beyond our own desire and basic instinct to do so) to react to new information immediately. Physiologically, the human body will register new information (fight or flight, remember!?), especially if that information doesn’t align with your truth or view of the world. Use this to your advantage. As the flush of dizziness or the tightness in your chest sets in, use these physical manifestations of stress to prompt non-reaction. Yep, you read that right. Rather than reacting in the moment, write the information down, and sit on it for as long as you can. As emotion subsides, you can then decide what to do with the new information—how to address it and the best time to do so. One of the best PR minds of all time, Kelsie Gwin, advises, “Never send your first version of an email, especially when written in an emotional state. Send version three or four.”  

Change doesn’t happen overnight. From the mouth of Bill Crawford, “life is your practice field” and practice makes (well, almost) perfect. At the very least, your employees won’t feel like they’re in the latest episode of an awful reality television show!

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