The Spirit of Getting it Right

That unseasonal cold snap we in the Eastern US endured last week, with nearly a foot of snow for some people, made it feel more like Christmas than Easter. In that spirit, I thought I’d share one of my Blue Ridge Business Journal articles, the one that always puts me in mind of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol, (even though it has only one spirit, not three). It goes like this:

Ken was unhappy. His staff was angry with him. Excited about finishing a project, they had asked to work overtime. Ken would have approved the request, but A cartoon image of Ebenezer Scrooge from Charles Dickens' 1843 novella, "A Christmas Carol".his boss had emphatically told him to rein in expenses. So Ken denied the request. (Scrooge!) With the staff angry, he knew from experience that their productivity would be lousy until this cloud passed over. Every time there was an upset, it showed itself in performance.

Ken sat in his office at the end of this dismal day. Bah, humbug!

He was initially shaken when the apparition appeared. But the spirit smiled sympathetically. “You’ve had a bad day,” the spirit noted. Ken, appreciating the support, relaxed. “I wish my workers would leave their emotions at home,” he said. “Feelings just get in the way!” The spirit smiled again. “Many managers have had the same thought,” he shared. “Let me show you what it actually would be like to get your wish.”

The spirit took Ken to the staff area. Ken watched his staff with amazement. His people were lifeless. They moved as if they were wearing lead boots. There was little talking, which at first Ken thought might be good. But as he watched, he could see that even the simplest cooperative steps were A photograph of three people looking at a tablet. They look like they are bored. missed for lack of communication. Ken asked the spirit, “Didn’t Jack see what Sally needed?” “Oh, sure, Jack noticed, but, without feelings, he did not care to help,” the spirit responded. Ken then asked, “Why are they moving so slowly? They look lazy.” “Without emotion,” the spirit said, “they have no motivation. Motivation comes from caring.”

Finally, Ken conceded, “OK. I’ve seen enough. But I can’t see a way out. Emotions disrupt our work, but without them, nothing happens. What should I do?” The spirit smiled again. “Asking the right question is the biggest part of the battle. Now we can get somewhere.”

“You can’t wish people’s feelings away, any more than you can ask for the wind not to blow,” the spirit explained. “Feelings are a part of human nature. But you can learn how to work intelligently with emotions.” The idea of combining emotions and intelligence seemed nonsensical to Ken, but he suspended his disbelief to see where this could go.

“There is a four-step cycle with emotions,” the spirit said. Knowing the cycle can help you work intelligently, not only with your staff’s feelings, but also with your own. The smarter you work with feelings, the more success you’ll have in business. Here are the four steps.”

“First, people experience an emotion, like the anger your staff had today. People experience anger in different ways. Some people may notice a physical change; maybe they clench their teeth. Others first notice their anger by the impulses that they have, maybe wanting to yell. Still others notice anger from their thoughts, such as, ‘He’s always doing this to us!’ . . .whether it’s true or not!” the spirit hastened to add, not wishing to judge.

“Second, emotions lead our thoughts in certain directions. We can’t pay attention to everything simultaneously. We select our focus based on whatever we care about most at that moment. Caring is an emotional process. When your staff was angry with you, they cared about a lost opportunity, and about not having their good intentions appreciated. This led them to focus on all of the times that they have been upset with you in the past. Your acts of kindness and support, also a part of your relationship with them, were not a part of their focus at that time.”

“Third, to work with emotions intelligently, you have to understand where they come from. In this case, the staff was excited to work overtime to nail down some tough issues on their project. When you, rather curtly and without explanation, told them no, showing no appreciation for their willingness to go the extra mile, they were hurt and disappointed, and responded with anger.

“Fourth – and here’s the payoff – once you understand where feelings come from, you can take steps to manage them. To be clear, while you can learn to control your own emotions, you cannot control anyone else’s feelings. You can, however, create conditions for your staff that invite feelings that will be more conducive to your goals than ‘rage at the boss.’ For example, had you thought about it, could you have predicted the response you got from your denial?”

“Yes,” Ken moaned with frustration. “But what could I do? I really had no choice. You just want me to cater to them!”

“No, not really,” replied the spirit, “although that is a common misinterpretation. Working with the feelings of your staff does not mean giving them whatever A photo of 3 people, one woman who is sitting down. She is smiling. Two men are standing in front of her. One is clasping the other's arm in a congratulatory pose, and they are shaking hands, and smiling.they want. But you could have given them information and genuine appreciation. What if you had said something like this? ‘I’m delighted that you are all so gung-ho about what we are doing that you would be willing to spend extra time away from your families. Unfortunately, my hands are tied. I have gotten word from upstairs that money is so tight right now that I cannot approve overtime. Believe me, I wish I could. Thanks for offering! You guys are great!’”

Ken could see that his staff would probably have responded differently. It is possible that some of the staff might still have been angry. Realistically, though, he could see that providing what the spirit suggested would have invited the staff to have different emotions, perhaps disappointment and frustration. These milder emotions are much less disruptive to the pace of work, and would have been less damaging to the relationship Ken has with his people.

“Thanks, you’ve been a big help.” Ken told the spirit. “But I feel a little overwhelmed. You make it sound easier than I suspect it really is. I don’t know how to respond to every situation I face.”

The spirit answered, “You are already two steps ahead of where you were. Most important, you asked the right question. And, now you know the four steps of emotional management. Learning what you need to do in each situation takes practice, perhaps with a little guidance. Call me when you need me.” A photo of a person in a business suit reaching out with one finger. Their finger is touching a glowing toolset (screwdriver and wrench). These tools represent the skills a coach teaches you.

Who is the spirit, really? It’s you. The leader’s coach. You bring what sometimes feels like magic to your clients because you know things, and can teach them things, that they have not had a chance to learn. Then their lives get better. Not a bad gig.

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