By Cecilia Calderón – February 6, 2018
Have you ever heard feedback like this? “Everyone loves your work, and appreciates your contributions, but they see a dark side. They perceive you as disruptive and confrontational. Bottom line: people are growing weary of it, and it’s harming your leadership brand.”
This is not a hypothetical case. It’s real feedback a client of mine received about his leadership.
As a marketing executive in a financial organization, Jack delivered strong results. Leadership considered him a high potential. Like many high performers, he was assigned a coach to help him improve his leadership skills and prepare him for the next level of leadership. I was his coach.
Jack was going places. His achievements and contributions spoke for themselves. He knew he did not shy away from conflict and was not afraid of a good fight. Jack was unaware of the effect his aggressive behaviors had on others.
I helped him see that his combative nature negatively impacted others and adversely impacted his leadership brand. His behavior did not serve him well, and in fact, his combative behavior became his leadership derailer.
Now, for the first time, Jack realized that he needed to address the issue.
Pinpointing the behaviors
Despite his having a brilliant analytical mind, being deeply committed, and focusing on results, any number of triggers would quickly move him to become argumentative, and compelled to win the point. He felt an immediate need to lash out at the “offender.” Coworkers described him as disruptive during meetings, often hijacking them. They mentioned that Jack would “go from 0 to 60 in 2 seconds.” It was clear that emotions were getting the best of him.
Helping Jack identify and analyze his behavioral reactions only got him so far. To make a fundamental change, we needed to dig deeper and uncover the root cause of his combative behaviors. We had to explore his emotional world. We needed to identify and analyze the depths of his actions, understand the impact of his behaviors, and learn why he reacted as he did.
Why Emotions Matter
Humans are emotional beings, but because we are not used to paying attention to our emotions, we do not see them. We often disregard, deny, rationalize or intellectualize emotions. When we do this, we blame others, and do not take personal accountability for what we do and say.
Generally, we identify emotions as either positive or negative. Most of us want to avoid negative emotions, but what if we understood them better? Emotions are messengers. What if we understood their message? Would that change the way we lead, love, parent, and behave?
Emotions as messengers
Our emotional world is extensive, and emotional competence has many different layers of complexity. Yet understanding these two distinctions can help us change the frequency and intensity of our ineffective behaviors:
- First, emotions are energy in motion. Emotions are predispositions to action.
- Second, emotions give us information. They convey what’s going on and the story we tell ourselves about the situation at hand.
For example, sadness predisposes us to withdraw. Our energy is diminished. The message of sadness is that we have lost something that we value. Fear predisposes us to avoid, to run. The message of fear is that something in the future can harm us.
Anger’s message is a trigger of our survival instincts. Anger prompts us to aggressively define and defend boundaries. Anger’s message is a warning to protect ourselves.
Happiness predisposes us to share with others, to enjoy the moment, and to celebrate. Its message is to know what is good in life.
When we understand these two distinctions, we can address the underlying message and choose appropriate action.
So What Did This Mean for Jack?
The issue for Jack was not anger per se, but the perception of injustice. Jack suffered from a history of perceived injustices. Helping him to recognize this pattern, he was able to reframe and re-interprete the stories he told himself about injustice. Once he understood that the perception of injustice triggered his anger and disruptive behaviors, we could move forward and Jack could change. As a result, he was able to address situations of perceived injustice in a positive and constructive way. He began harnessing the power of conversation to promote the team’s interests as well as his own. This approach significantly reduced and, in many cases, eliminated, his reactive and disruptive behavior.
Reacting vs. Responding
Reacting: When facing difficult situations, we usually follow this simple sequence and react: This two-step process can lead to unwanted consequences.
Responding: Once we understand that we can take the time to Pause, this enables us to respond thoughtfully instead of merely reacting. Pausing helps us to:
- Register the emotion
- Connect to its message
- Choose a more appropriate response
- Reinterpret the story you’re telling yourself about the situation
- Engage in a constructive conversation
For Jack, understanding what was happening beneath his emotional outbursts enabled him to incorporate the “pause button”. He was able to interrupt his reactive behaviors, slow down, and make different behavioral choices.
When Jack took these steps on a regular basis, he addressed conflict more constructively, had more effective conversations, which contributed significantly to a positive working environment. With these changes, he reopened his opportunities for professional growth.
Remember, emotions appear for a reason. Listen to what they have to say. Emotional competence is a tool you can use to build your emotional intelligence, helping you improve your leadership effectiveness.