It’s so true that you can’t stop the waves

You can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf! Jon Kabat-Zinn famously said this when he was talking about the process of learning to be with our emotions in mindfulness practice.

The ever-present nature of our feelings and emotions means that if you’re making any progress at all towards becoming self-aware, emotional awareness will be a big part of that process.  In fact, feelings are so important in mindfulness they are one of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness (body, feelings, thoughts, reality). 

Learning how to ride the waves of your own emotions is the first step in developing emotional intelligence. And emotional intelligence is now recognised as essential for every-one to develop at work, whether you’re a leader or a member of the team.

Let’s be honest, working with people can be difficult and navigating emotions in the workplace can be challenging. Emotional intelligence is a set of competencies (both skills and behaviours) that can help you to work more effectively with emotions when they show up or are triggered at work.

All the research shows there is a direct link between the way people feel and the way they perform at work. Druskat, Mount and Sala’s excellent book, Linking emotional intelligence and performance at work, is full of evidence to back this up.

There is a direct link between the way people feel and the way they perform at work

In effective organisations, people feel more appreciated, cared for, engaged and motivated, compared with ineffective organisations where people feel afraid, stressed and disempowered.  I know what kind of organisation I would prefer to be part of.

Emotions impact on behaviour, performance and decisions in the workplace, in both helpful and unhelpful ways.  In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that emotions impact on everything – both in our professional and personal lives – because our emotions are hard-wired.

There really is no emotion-free zone. Understanding this is important because it means when we come up against our own or other people’s emotions, it can be a judgment-free zone as well. 

Why would you judge yourself harshly, or judge another person for their emotions, when you know that emotions are just what the brain does? Our emotions are not fixed and permanent; it’s what you do with them that matters. The choice is yours.

“You come to the profound understanding that thoughts and feelings (including negative ones) are transient. They come and they go, and ultimately, you have a choice about whether to act on them or not.”

– Mark Williams, 2011

It all starts in the brain

The idea of the three brains, which draws on McClean’s work on the triune brain, is a simplification of neuroscience which is a vastly more complex subject. But it is a useful way to understand the science of emotions and how they are engaged by every-day stressors, both at work and in our personal lives, and how this affects our decisions and behaviour.

Neuroscience is the study of the biological functioning of the brain. When an event occurs, the parts of the brain that control our emotional responses, the so-called emotional brain, interpret the event as either a threat or a reward. Events that are threatening create anxiety, stress, frustration or any number of other negative emotions, while those that are rewarding create more positive emotions such as satisfaction, meaning, contentment or gratitude.

Where the event is interpreted as a threat, the emotional brain sends a signal to the parts of the brain that control automatic bodily functions, the so-called primal brain. This is the fight or flight response – where the body activates all of the hormones needed to go in and fight, or to run very fast to get away. Our heart races to pump more blood, our breathing quickens, and we have a heightened alertness so that we are ready to fight or flee.

Depending on whether the event arouses a positive or negative emotional response, our so-called rational brain, which is responsible for higher-order activity, is activated in a different ways, influencing our behaviours and decisions.  If positive emotions are aroused, our thinking becomes more expansive and creative at solving problems and making decisions, and our behaviours are more helpful.

But if negative emotions are aroused, our thinking becomes narrower. We are less able to see options and solutions to problems, our decision-making is compromised, and our behaviours become unhelpful, unproductive and even destructive. Unfortunately, the same process is triggered by stressors that are not life-threatening such as work pressure or relationship problems.  Over time, this leaves us feeling constantly stressed and physically depleted.

Putting emotional intelligence into practice

Cultivating emotional intelligence is a practice. This involves reflection, getting feedback from other people, and experimenting with new behaviours.

In my last article on emotional intelligence, I Identified ten key emotional intelligence competencies that are essential for leaders who want to lead more mindfully.  With every emotional intelligence competency, it’s helpful to identify the behaviours you would actually put into practice in order to cultivate the competency.

Self-awareness is a foundational competency so this is a good place to begin your reflection. Perhaps you could even ask for feedback to see how others think you’re doing.

Self-Awareness Competency:  Knowing how you feel and why
Behaviour: Ask for feedback on your behaviour
Behaviour: Respond effectively to feedback when you receive it

When I went through the Genos Emotional Intelligence assessment process, which involved getting feedback on my leadership behaviours from colleagues, I was surprised to find that people didn’t think I was very good at asking for feedback, but they thought I was pretty good at taking the feedback when it was offered. When I reflected on this, I agreed that whenever people offered me (unsolicited) feedback I always took it on the chin, acknowledged my failings, and used the feedback as a development opportunity.

But I have never been keen on actively seeking out feedback. Perhaps it’s because seeking feedback is an act of courage.  The moment you ask for feedback, you choose to make yourself vulnerable.  

Over the years, I have observed how often people struggle with feedback – asking for it, receiving it, and giving it. A common response is defensiveness, and underneath defensiveness is fear. Many people avoid feedback because they’re afraid of failing, being caught out as an imposter, being judged as incompetent, losing opportunities, or even losing their job.

Seeking feedback is an act of courage.  The moment you ask for feedback, you choose to make yourself vulnerable.  

And all of this makes complete sense if you remember what the brain does. Being vulnerable is threatening. Being judged or getting caught out is threatening. Your emotional brain sends a signal to your primal brain to protect yourself, and you go in to defend.  Your rational brain then creates all sorts of unhelpful thoughts that shut down the opportunity to think creatively or solve problems effectively, and makes you behave in ways that only make the situation worse.

So when you start experimenting with behaviours that involve seeking and receiving feedback, be kind to yourself. Remember you brain is just doing what it does. Pause and reflect on what is happening when your fight or flight response kicks in. It’s trying to keep you safe.

In experimenting with feedback behaviours, think about how to create psychological safety. Here is how I make the whole process feel safe for me and other people.

The situation: I’m feeling scared I will be caught out for messing up a project I am leading.

The way I choose to think about the situation: I know my project is not going well. Perhaps I’ve contributed to that. I need some feedback to learn how to do this better. I wonder if my colleagues could help. It’s scary to ask for feedback but I am willing to ask because I care about the project.

The words I choose when I speak: I’d like to talk about how the project is going. I know there are some areas where I could improve. I am wondering if you would be willing to help me figure out what I could be doing better, and what else needs to change. I care about the project and I want to see it succeed.

By demonstrating openness to feedback and learning, I create safety for myself. This is very important given that I am choosing to make myself vulnerable. I also create safety for the person who I am asking to give me feedback. They will be more willing to give useful and kind feedback if they know that I genuinely want to learn and improve, and that my motivation is I really care.

I encourage you to try this feedback experiment today.

Maria Brett
The Growing Edge

Maria Brett is a former CEO and psychotherapist who is certified by Genos International to undertake emotional intelligence assessment.  Maria teaches emotional intelligence and coaches leaders (and aspiring leaders) in for-purpose organisations in her Emotionally Intelligent Leaders Program. To find out more, contact Maria. To find out more, contact Maria.

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Druskat, V. U., Mount, G., & Sala, F. (2016). Linking emotional intelligence and performance at work: Current research evidence with individuals and groups.

MacLean, P. D. (1990). The triune brain in evolution: Role in paleocerebral functions. New York: Plenum Press.

Williams, M., & Penman, D. (2011). Mindfulness: An eight-week plan for finding peace in a frantic world. Emmaus, Pa: Rodale Books.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. New York: Hyperion.

© Maria Brett, 2021