Don’t forget the emotion

Kate Pearlman-Shaw, Partner for Leadership Consultancy, recently published an article in the MJ, where she says bringing emotions to the forefront is an important part of being an effective leader, and demonstrates the advanced people skills needed to lead an organisation successfully.

For public services under increasing strain, inspired leadership will be the game changer. Modern day public sector leadership requires flexibility like never before: the ability of a senior leader to regulate their emotions, choose their behaviours and understand which communication style is needed in which situation is the new art. Underpinning our ability to change any behaviour is the ability to understand our own emotional reaction; the emotional impact we have on another, and then to regulate the underlying emotion.

It’s been well known in psychology for decades and now, proven by modern insights from neuroscience, that our emotions come first. We have an emotional reaction nanoseconds before we think and even longer, comparatively, before we react or behave. Understanding and responding to our own and others’ emotions underpins our effectiveness as leaders to create the necessary pace, partnerships and pioneers the sector now demands.

Our brains at work

I began my career as a neuropsychologist; in those days the methods for understanding what was going on in the brain was through pencil and paper tests. With the advent of brain scanning we know so much more about brain function and we know how significant a role the emotional centres of our brain play in our day to day existence.

Neuroscientists have observed that the brain scans for threat every five seconds: when it detects even minor environmental ‘trouble’, even if this is anticipated and not real, the brain’s emotional centres fire. These have a powerful effect on the brain’s ability to synthesise and use the myriad of data it is trying to integrate. With just minor emotional stimulation, we are less likely to remember crucial data, think logically, explain coherently and concisely what we mean; less likely to make the most effective decisions; less able to deal with organisational risks…the list goes on. In short, where emotion prevails, our performance and ability to communicate with each other drops. 

Emotions and behaviours at work 

Psychologists see a great many emotions at work, separated into the ‘positive’ and the ‘negative’. Both are disruptive, although the negative far more than the positive. Anger, fear, loss and dislike all in turn create a range of disruptive, unhelpful behaviours such as withdrawal, conflict, dogmatism, false agreement, resistance, confusion and disengagement. These behaviours receive matching reciprocal responses from colleagues: anger begets fight or flight; game playing and manipulation lead to point scoring and protectionism and false agreement leads to a leader exerting more control. 

Furthermore, put a group of emotive people together and the group effect multiply these behaviours: now we have ‘risky shift’ (where a group follows a strong emotive idea not based on fact), people joining the ‘BMW Club’ (bitching, moaning and whinging) and, at the very worst, sabotage. There is a strong link between negative emotion and low engagement scores as well as an inability to performance manage and the failure of change programmes.

We believe an effective leader needs to make emotions centre stage, not overlook them and hope they’ll go away

Preventing and managing negative emotions at work

We perform much better when we are calm and when we have a moderate level of ‘positive’ emotion. As well as scanning every five seconds for threat, the brain is also scanning for what neuroscientists call ‘reward’: this is a state where our brains are stress free, happy, satisfied (but not overly excited or enthusiastic) where very powerful neurotransmitter substances can be activated that calm our emotional centres.


Our top tips

Listen, understand and empathise

When someone is emotional the most powerful way to help them re-engage the integrative functions of their brain, in order to decrease emotional stimulation, is to listen and properly understand. When we are being heard and validated by another, oxytocin is secreted instantly calming the emotions. Just having a trusted relationship with another is enough to trigger this effect – so even if you have a hard conversation today, having invested in that relationship will help diminish the response quicker.

Don’t address facts until the emotion has settled down

Do you ever wonder why you aren’t heard? If we give complex information when someone is emotionally aroused they don’t hear the information. This sinks in better once we have listened, understood and empathised with someone else’s point of view first.

Deliberate vulnerability

The best way to decrease our own emotional reactions is to say our emotions out loud – yes you heard that. There’s an amazing neural pathway that switches the emotional centres down once we have shared how we feel with someone else, the impact of oxytocin again.

Create enjoyment and satisfaction

When people enjoy what they do and are satisfied, they secrete dopamine, another inhibitor of emotional stimulation. The more we enjoy our work, the weaker and less lasting the emotional response will be. So, work with your teams on creating the feel good factor to ‘bank’ and balance the tough days. 

We believe an effective leader needs to make emotions centre stage, not overlook them and hope they’ll go away. We think dealing with inevitable emotive change needs sophisticated people skills, excellent listening and a focus on team building and development.

At GatenbySanderson, we support leaders with ‘how-to-skills’ to increase emotional intelligence, self-insight and emotional management. Our leadership development team are highly skilled and experienced in developing pragmatic methodologies to create emotional and behavioural change. We co-work with our clients to design and deliver contextually relevant leadership development interventions which have a lasting impact and meaningful legacy. 

This year we’ve completed the first cohorts of leadership development programmes with two London boroughs, two district councils and a large college group that have honed in on emotional and behavioural change. The success of this investment is perhaps best summed up by the IiP assessor at one of these organisations who said: 

‘Those [attending] have gained considerable insight…people describe being energised and excited through their experiences of this leadership development. As a result, managers and colleagues are finding people are more prepared to “open-up” far more than they previously have, enabling individuals to really get to know each other for the first time and supporting people to question and constructively challenge more than ever before…Individual leaders and managers report feeling better equipped to deal with difficult conversations but find that the need for these is diminishing as people align with the college ambition’. 

If you are interested in finding out more about our leadership development programmes, please contact Kate Pearlman-Shaw.

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