Jeff, one of the things you’ve guided CEOs to do is to deal with their emotions in the open. What does that mean? Why do you say that?
The first thing is, we have to acknowledge that leaders are people, and people have emotions. And while that sounds incredibly pedestrian, it’s unbelievable how often people forget that. The second thing we have to understand is that emotions drive decisions.
There’s this great literature in neurological research, with studies of people who – due to brain injury or a birth challenge – the part of their brain that is typically associated with emotional regulation does not work. And what you would expect to see out of that is, in our conceptualization of the brain, these people would be great decision makers, right? Because they’re not clouded by that awful human emotion, and they are purely logical instead. What the studies actually show is that people who don’t have that part of their brain can’t make a decision. They can’t walk out their door and make a decision – forget any higher order stuff. Emotions are driving the show, whether you think so or not. Even when emotions aren’t driving the show, intuition certainly is. People like Kahneman and other Nobel laureates have proven that pretty conclusively.
So the question is, if you’ve got something that’s really driving the show, what’s the best way to deal with it? We can have lots of conversations about that, but the first thing we can say with a lot of confidence is: you don’t hide from it. That’s a bad thing to do if something is a reality about human beings, and how we think and how we work, and how we come up with innovations and success. If we know what drives that, the worst thing we can do is hide from it. Most management science attempts to hide from it because of this belief that we’re rational and we should be using logical systems and all this stuff – but the science doesn’t support any of that.
Emotions are there, they’re driving the show. Intuition is there, it’s driving the show. That’s what you’re really paying for when you’re paying someone to come to work, or paying yourself as a leader. You’re paying for someone who has emotions, intuitions, instincts, biases, and all of these things that are often dismissed as sort of a sideshow, when they’re really the center ring of the circus. Not dealing with that reality is a path to failure. Human beings going through emotional struggles, who have had trauma, who have had negative events in their past, who don’t deal with that.. those things don’t go away. They metastasize in the subconscious into unpredictable behaviors. And the worst thing for a business in the midst of an unpredictable world is to have a bunch of unpredictable people dealing with that world.
All human beings are unpredictable. But we talked about Twinkies and putting a healthy person in a room full of Twinkies and eventually getting a diabetic… If you build a system that denies reality and tells people not to bring up their emotions, and tells people not to talk about the things that are quite literally creating the results of the company, then what you’re saying is: hey, listen, don’t bother me with it, or I feel uncomfortable with it, even though I understand that this is going to come back and bite me at some point.
That’s what you’re really saying: I’m unpracticed in dealing with your emotions; I’m uninterested because I’ve got this mental model that your labor is just a cog in the wheel; I’m uncomfortable because I was brought up with toxic masculinity or men don’t cry or whatever other tape we’ve been taught, so let’s ignore the reality of those emotions and the reality of how humans think and what we do, and I’m going to ignore that and make the bet that you’re not going to fall apart at some point in the future when I need you most.
That’s just a terrible bet. It’s terrible not to treat human beings like human beings. And practically, it’s terrible to make a bet that something isn’t gonna bite you in the ass at some point in the future, when it’s not that hard to deal with today.
You might say, Okay, I’m in sync with that, but I don’t know what to do about that. What you do is lead – leaders lead, and one of the ways you lead is to go first. You should be dealing with your emotions in the open, because you want to show that that is safe and okay to your people who are having emotions, or have had trauma.
Now, I want to be clear, if you are a mess, get help to make sense of things. “Mess” as in you are a jumble of confusions and emotions, which frankly, all of us are at some time or another. But if you can’t make productive sense of yourself, your reality, your goals, and you can’t turn your feelings into forward progress. In that case, I’m not saying that you should tell everybody that as a leader, because human beings are a social species that’s very sensitive to power dynamics. And you as a leader have a lot of power, with the ability to hire, fire, control status and respect… all the keys to the psychological kingdom for other human beings. And so if you’re a leader, you have a responsibility to try to show up as the best version of you, in order to help those people secure some safety so they can be the best person they can. So I’m not saying that if you are a jumble of confusions and emotions, to show up and blow that all over everybody, because you should get help to make sense of those things. But you can be authentic to the group and share that you struggle, and that you get help.
Once you’ve made sense of your emotions, you can give transparency to people about what you were feeling and how you made sense of it, and the learning you’ve gained. You can actually show people that it’s safe to have these conflicts, inner turmoils and emotions in the workplace – and to deal productively with them and turn that into a win for them. So that people know they have a safe place to actually be fully human, and make that human-ness successful for them and for the people they work with.
So if I’m a CEO, once I’ve had a chance to make productive sense of my emotions, process what I’m going through, I should go to my executive team and say: Yeah, I was feeling fearful and triggered by what the board said to me, and that closed me off from listening, and I wasn’t able to hear conflicting voices or feedback.. and I see that was coming from fear, and now I’m sitting here recognizing that on the upside, maybe if I listen to that feedback, I’ll gain from it, and at a minimum I’ll understand other perspectives of people who are my stakeholders. Is that the kind of thing you’re talking about?
Yeah, I mean, that shows a lot of mastery. I don’t think you even have to get to that level of mastery to be effective. What you can say is: I was scared and here’s what I’m doing about it. I think that’s okay. Leaders won’t even admit that they have emotions. It’s just crazy. It tells you how powerful the human mind is right? Especially since most leaders are men, unfortunately, since we grow up in this toxic culture of, don’t have emotions, don’t cry, all this stuff… just emotionally stunted, immature people who are being brought to these leadership positions, and then being told, okay, now be effective, but just do it with one half of your brain tied behind your back.
You can take simple steps to break through the tyranny of that bad thinking and those toxic beliefs, and just admit vulnerability. Again, I think if you stand up in front of a group of people and say, Hey, I’m scared shitless, and I don’t know what to do about it. Okay, I’m now taking questions! You should not be surprised if the response from the crowd – all of whom are depending on you to know where you’re going and what you’re doing – you should not be surprised if the reaction to that is negative.
But if you stand up in front of people and say, I’m human, and I get scared, and here’s how I deal with it, that’s good. Study after study shows that people trust leaders who show any sense of vulnerability, of trying to be real, of trying to connect. Because we all know we’re having emotions and struggles. Everybody is. Well, not everybody, 8-10% of the population is sociopathic, and if you’re one of the 8-10% and listening to this, I’m sorry you’re a CEO. But the reality is 90% of people are struggling and have emotions. Coming through a pandemic, and George Floyd, and social unrest, and war in Ukraine…it can feel like it’s a shitshow right now. It’s okay to feel that.
But here’s the secret: it’s always been a shitshow. There’s never been a time in human history where it was all hunky-dory Pax Romana. Human beings create systems that create conflict, and then struggle to deal with that. So it’s difficult to be a human being at any time. It’s especially difficult now. And if we want to deal effectively with that reality, it starts with leadership acknowledging the truth of that reality.