I ran an interesting experiment last week with a group. I was training them on being emotionally intelligent leaders. Before I tell you about the experiment, a little context might be in order.
The organization, a group of twenty folks, has been working while undergoing massive change. By massive, I mean not only the quantity of change processes going on at once but the entire cultural core of leadership requirements as well. For example, managers are being asked to shift from a “command and control” culture, where directives are pushed down the chain of command, to one of solving issues as they present by the people closest to the event.
This type of change has as a reorganization component. Teams are being dissolved and new teams are forming that did not exist three months ago. People are being herded into unclear roles that have no guidelines or strategies for success.
This kind of change is hard on people. As humans, we naturally seek safety and comfort. Even if things are not ideal if we feel comfortable and safe and like the way we have it, why would we ever want to change?
It is like trying to get your parents to move into assisted living and out of the house they have been in for over forty years. Even though everyone knows it is best, they just feel better in their environment. Change from the known to the unknown can be deeply challenging.
So back to my training experiment.
When the group of twenty came in for the 9:00 AM program, the first question I asked them, is the question I ask every group at the beginning of a session, “What do you need to know about me to feel safe in your learning?”
I know the more safe people feel, the more likely they are to absorb content, listen, and hence hopefully learn something that benefits them as future leaders.
I received typical questions like, “Tell us your education and work background,” and, “Tell us where you are from.” Even from time to time people want to know about my family. Once I have built psychological trust, I usually ask them what they want to learn during our time together. Even though I have an agenda, I always want to know what they need. This helps me to empathize throughout the day and link my content to their needs.
The Experimental Question
The group of twenty are all sitting in pods of five people at four different sets of rectangular tables. I then ask the experimental question to the group stating, “I just got some information from senior management that they feel this group is not sitting in a position that is conducive to learning, and they would like them to learn as much as they can from the day.”
Silence. Seriously, like for ninety seconds. Then someone said, “So, are you asking us to move around?”
I said, “I am not asking you to do anything. Is there anything you would like to do with the information you received?”
Then someone said, “You are the expert, tell us how you want us to sit.”
I said, “Thank you for the compliment but that is not my job here. You received information and I need to know if you are going to do anything with it. If not, I will just move on.”
Finally, some discussion started.
“Maybe we should change seats.”
“I think we should sit in a ‘U’ shape.”
“Then we would have to move tables.”
“I am comfortable right here where I am. I like my seat and really don’t want to move.”
This went on for about three minutes and I interjected, “You all are spending a lot of time talking but what I am observing is no one is moving to meet the expectation.”
After about six minutes, or so, the group got up, moved tables and formed a ‘U’ shape. Once they got into position, I asked if this was more conducive to learning, and they came up with some good reasons as to why it might be.
Then I asked, “So, why did it take you so long to respond to the feedback you received?”
One of the group members sat back and said, “Okay, I see what you just did here. You put us in a place we were comfortable and settled in and then presented us with an opportunity to do better and we hesitated and dragged our feet. That is exactly what a lot of very talented people are doing here at our company. We all know we have to change, but even those who say they are excited about the change are experiencing some emotion around the loss of the way things used to be. So we are just sitting and talking about it without much movement.”
As we continued to debrief the experiment, and what was happening in the organization, the discussion quickly centered around the change events they were experiencing and their individual responses to those changes. They came up with many reasons for the change: new leadership, market dynamics, product changes, and cultural inefficiencies. All relevant reasons, and from my perspective, accurate.
My mission for the day then became clear, from an emotional intelligence perspective, to help them develop actions and responses to become emotional agile.
“No matter the circumstance, I am responsible for my reaction”, became the mantra of the group.
For example, when people get angry or upset they almost always blame the person, the object, or God for being responsible for the change. This group came to the realization that when they are faced with change, it is up to them to recognize the emotion, label it, and then ask what it is really telling them.
The reality is, life situations happen. It is not debating “if” change is going to happen but “when,” and the question becomes how are you going to respond.
This is emotional agility. How you choose to respond in your life when change is thrust upon you.
This is Too funny
So, I am sitting on an airplane flying home writing this post and the flight attendant has the snack box. The choices are: Belvita Breakfast Bar, Pretzels, Plane Cookies, and Fritos. Now I always, I mean always ask for, and get, Plane Cookies and Fritos.
The flight attendant says to me, “Which one?”
And I say, “I always get the Fritos and the Plane Cookies.”
He says, “I can give you one, which one would you like?”
My knee-jerk thought is, what a jerk! What is his problem? They always have extras of this stuff. Why is he being such a stickler? I want my snack and I want it my way!”
Then I realized I was not acting with much emotional agility.
So, I reread what I just wrote about being emotionally agile and decided to apply my thoughts to my own behavior.
I sat back and thought, he just wants to make sure everyone gets a snack. This is actually a pretty noble gesture on his part. What a nice guy. If I was sitting in the back I would appreciate getting to have a snack choice like the people up front.
The teacher is always a student.
Becoming Agile with Your Emotion
When change is thrust upon us as humans, we have a tendency to look for blame outside of ourselves for how the action has landed on us.
The central thought behind emotional agility is; no matter the circumstance, you are responsible for your reaction.
According to Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, "You cannot always choose what happens to you. But you can choose how you respond to what happens to you.”
What emotion do you have to manage to be able to be open to think about something outside of yourself?
Can you catch yourself today having some change thrust upon you, and rather than justify with blame, seek contribution on how you can be responsible for your actions?