Emotional Stimulus and Response

 

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I was sitting in a managers’ meeting at work a few weeks ago when the facilitator posed this question to each of us: “Are you more about facts or emotions?” He then proceeded to go around the table, which was essentially populated by the leadership team of the company for which I work, extracting an answer from each of us without passing judgment one way or the other. The responses were mixed, which made it very easy to be open and honest when my turn came. Without hesitating, I said, “I’m a walking, talking bag of emotions.” I couldn’t have fibbed if I wanted to, since the facilitator also happened to be my mentor. After everyone had answered the question, I seized an opportunity to return the question. “What about you,” I asked our leader.

“I’m a very emotional person,” he admitted, “but I make my decisons based on facts and I don’t allow my emotions to control me.” My mentor’s response caused my perception of the man to shift somewhat. Oh, I knew he was all about facts and I knew him to be a genuinely happy person, but if this guy was “very emotional,” he was so in a way that was very different from me. When I think “very emotional,” I think in terms of swings and this man is not given to emotional swings. This was a learning moment for me, one of three that would unfold in the space of a week’s time.

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My second learning moment came during a much smaller meeting when my mentor revealed to me something that should have been obvious — it had been right in front of my face for decades — but hadn’t been obvious until then. For many years now, at various companies, co-workers have looked to me for help, guidance, or outright direction even if they did not answer to me. The late Dr. Stephen Covey referred to this quality of leadership as “moral authority,” which differs from formal authority in that the latter invokes authority by title. And here is the second learning moment that my mentor handed me: Because people look to me in this manner, when I display adverse emotions, I profoundly affect others. As God is my witness, this had never occurred to me.

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Now let me back up and explain why this matters so much. Because I have never seen the potential harm it can and does cause, I have never been one to contain my initial emotions. Keyword: initial. For example, let’s say I have been working for several hours on a time-sensitive project that is nearing deadline. There is a substantial queue of equally time-sensitive projects right behind that one. At that moment, someone approaches me with three more such projects, each of which appears to disrupt the current priority and order of events.

My initial emotional reaction is to flare, to outwardly exhibit my displeasure. Without using words, the look in my eyes says, “Are you serious?! What is this, some sort of test?!” Moments later, the emotional flare has passed. I’ve already processed all the facts and revised the order of my business in order to make sure all the deadlines will be met, an accomplishment for which I am revered in consistently achieving.

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No harm done. Right? Wrong! Sure, I’m moving along my merry way again, not even giving that emotional flareup a second thought. But those who look to me for guidance and direction saw their leader falter — and that is the problem. People may feed on that, especially those close to me or who look up to me. Whatever they see, be it fear, anger, resentment, whatever, I just set the tone for the rest of their day, if not longer. What if I caused them to begin withholding vital information about new projects? What if I caused someone to stop coming to me for much-needed help? The results could be devastating for that individual, the department, even the company. Such is the far-reaching impact of my response, however short-lived it may be. Wow. How many casualties had I left in my wake? I silently vowed to myself, “No more!”

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My third learning moment came during a one-on-one session with my mentor. We had been talking about events — those things over which we have no control — and our responses, which are the things we can and should control. I don’t recall the specifics, but at some point I opined, “You aren’t afraid of anything. I wish I could be more like that.”

His next words stopped me in my tracks. “What do you mean? I’m afraid. I’m petrified.” I looked at my mentor, dumfounded. How could this be? The man sitting in front of me was a virtual Rock of Gibraltar. Nothing ever phases him. Nothing. In the midst of a challenge, he smiles. Even laughs. Scared? Petrified? What’s the secret, I wondered.

“I simply don’t let my fears stop me from pursuing my results. I contain my emotions. I control them. They don’t control me.”

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And there it was, my path to a better outcome, presented in three realizations.

  1. I can be emotional without being a slave to my emotions. My choice.
  2. Understanding that emotions are contagious and that I am a carrier, I can spread joy and gratitude just as effectively as I can spread despair and frustration. My choice.
  3. I can be scared as all hell and still move forward if I understand what I am moving toward and why — and others will follow me. Again, my choice.

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You know, it’s pretty cool to be at this stage of my life and my career and to realize that I am still learning, still growing both personally and professionally. I am a work in progress, absolutely not perfect, and that’s okay. I am always learning, always growing.

Sometimes putting my thoughts into words helps me to understand them better so if you’re still reading, thanks for hanging with me.

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