Staying Above the Fray: Leading in a Dysfunctional System, Part 2: by Todd W. Hall, PhD

Part 2 in series Leading in a Dysfunctional System.

It’s natural in a dysfunctional system to respond to negative emotions with anger and frustration. This leads to a counter-productive focus on the negatives. Insecure leaders often don’t see the horizon of possible solutions because they are too caught up in the negative emotion of the system. It takes a conscious effort, but secure leaders absorb the negative emotion in the system, metabolize it, and respond positively instead of responding in kind. They avoid getting into the negative fray, and instead focus on positive solutions for the good of the organization. Emotional security is the foundation for this broader focus on the good of the organization.

Neuroscience has taught us that we catch each other’s emotion. It’s like a Wi-Fi connection for emotions. It happens mostly through the nonverbal channels of communication that are processed very rapidly and outside of our conscious awareness by the right brain and the subcortex, or the lower part of the brain. So if there is negative emotion in the system, you’re going to catch it automatically. How, then, do you absorb it and not just spew it back into the system? Here are four practices that can help.

First, develop the habit of regularly tuning into your emotions. When you notice you have some sort of bad gut level feeling, try to name it-do you feel sad, angry, overwhelmed, helpless, irked, betrayed, bitter, shocked, confused, etc.? To be an effective leader in any sphere, you have to discipline yourself to regularly create space to tune into your emotional state. This is especially difficult for Type-A, driven personalities. But you have to do it nonetheless. If you can’t do it on your own, find someone who can help you do this.

Second, try to name the sources of the negative emotions. Spend some time reflecting on where the bad feelings come from. Don’t worry about trying to solve anything at this point. The goal is to take an accepting and compassionate stance toward yourself. You’re just trying to describe your feelings with an attitude that says, “whatever you are feeling is understandable and OK.” There are reasons for your emotions. Some of the reasons will be due to the current situation, and some of the reasons will inevitably be due to your connection filters (see the first entry in this series on connection strategies). The very act of naming the negative emotions and source events begins to transform them.

What you are doing here is integrating two ways of knowing: gut level knowledge and head knowledge. When you translate gut level knowledge into words, it transforms the gut level knowledge.

Third, talk to someone outside the system who will listen and not try to fix the problem. Often times it helps to solidify this translation process by talking through your feelings and experiences with someone you trust. They can help you see things you can’t see, and validate your experiences. Even if they see where your filters are operating, if they point this out to you in a compassionate way, this can be tremendously helpful. It can sting, to be sure, but if you can handle the sting, you will learn things about yourself that you wouldn’t otherwise.

Fourth, don’t respond until you no longer feel anxiously compelled to respond. What do I mean by “anxiously compelled?” Well, there’s a negative sense of being compelled and a positive sense, and they feel different internally. You may be compelled by love, or gratitude or generativity to help someone, or to move the dysfunctional system toward health. But you also may feel compelled to respond out of anger, frustration, bitterness, anxiety, and the list could go on. If you feel compelled to act based on negative emotions, don’t do it. Put it on the shelf and don’t respond for awhile. If you don’t have the space internally to respond in a positive manner, then you have to create the space externally first.

Give yourself enough time and space until your negative emotions decrease and then start to focus on positive solutions. How can you model the health you want to create in the system by the way you respond? And it’s important to remember it’s not just the content of your response that matters; it’s also the emotional tone with which you respond. In fact, your emotional tone is more important, because that is what others in the system will catch.

Stay tuned for practical strategy #3: Move toward your strengths and create value.

Reflection: What are ways that work for you to create space to tune in to your emotions?

4 Replies to “Staying Above the Fray: Leading in a Dysfunctional System, Part 2: by Todd W. Hall, PhD”

  1. Dr. Hall,
    Thanks for a really helpful article.
    Pinpointing the source of your emotions is a great exercise to do.
    Prayer is also a vital link.
    By Grace,

    1. Sorry for the way delayed response, but thanks for your comment Travis. Prayer is definitely vital; great point! I think prayer can help us manage our emotions by tuning into our faith that God really does have our best interest at heart and nothing that happens to us is out of his sight. It’s so easy for me to lose sight of that.

      Take care,

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