Recently, I’ve been talking with leaders, including mid-level leaders, about the challenges they are facing with staff shortages, continued ambiguity from COVID, and end of year pressures. In these conversations, the underlying theme is the toll these issues are taking on their emotions and their continual effort to push those emotions away or to simply plow through them.
The context for these conversations is a broader discussion about leading with emotional agility. Susan David and Christina Congleton, in their Harvard Business Review article, define emotional agility as the ability to manage one’s thoughts and feelings in a mindful, productive way. When most of us get hooked by our negative thoughts, especially at work, we have one of two reactions. We buy into them (“I always do something stupid that gets in the way of my success.”) and avoid the situations that may evoke them. Or, we rationalize them away (“I shouldn’t have these thoughts. Just get on with it.”)
When we get hooked and choose one of these two common reactions, we are not giving ourselves the opportunity to respond effectively and intentionally. To choose to respond rather than react, the first step you must take is to recognize what is going on with you.
When I talk with these leaders, I ask them how many times a day they check in with themselves to assess what they are feeling. The overwhelming response is never. Some will say rarely. A very small fraction will say regularly. Then we do the following exercise:
First, we pause the conversation right there and I give them 30 seconds to just stop and check in with themselves.
Before the pause, I encourage them to work hard to accurately name what they are feeling. Don’t just tell themselves they are feeling stressed. Rather become more granular in the assessment. Are you angry? Frustrated? Overwhelmed? Constrained? To respond, rather than react, the first step is to accurately identify and understand what you are feeling. You can’t create an effective response or strategy if you are unable to clearly define what you are responding to.
At the end of 30 seconds, I ask them about their experience. They often say it makes them feel more centered, have more clarity, and are better able to manage those emotions than have the emotions manage them. It provides them the space to choose a response.
We then discuss how pausing 1-2 times a day – taking 1 minute out of an 8, 10 or 12 hour workday– can significantly impact the ability to become more emotionally agile and the impact of that agility on their ability to lead in challenging times.
Over the next few weeks, take a moment or two throughout the day to check in with yourself. What are you feeling? How are you reacting to those emotions? What opportunities do you have to pause to make the choice of how you will respond?
These are stressful times. You’ll find that this technique also works quite well at home.