I was running a session as part of leadership programme for high potential leaders in a global organisation. We’d got to the bit where we use FIRO-B, a psychometric tool that explores our relationship with our need for control, for closeness in our relationships and the degree to which we are open with other people. I became aware that a woman was frowning and trying to catch my eye.
‘What’, she eventually said, ‘did this possibly have to do with leadership? ‘Why’, she added, ‘are we exploring all this … touchy feely stuff?’
That was at least two years ago. I have never forgotten it. Not least because my response mostly involved standing there like a fish and struggling to find the words to respond. Because nothing is more clear to me. Our awareness of our own internal processes and how we show up with others is core to leadership. How we feel about ourselves and other people matters deeply. Our emotions – all of them – matter.
And then last month, working on a module of a leadership programme with Ivy House, We were teaching early-career leaders that we are totally in control of our own thoughts and experiences (we can’t control events but we certainly can control our responses), that we can learn ways to get out of ‘thought spirals’ and giving them focused and personal feedback on their impact. In other words, really up close and personal working which required a lot of revealing-of-self from the facilitators as well as participants. They were amazed that ‘self’ was part of leadership and asked, with a sense of naughtiness and permission-seeking and also real excitement. and possibility …’Really, we can talk about who we are, legitimately, as part of leadership development?’ Yes, totally, we said.
I keep seeing this theme in my work and it’s bothering me. Drawing on recent experiences of coaching and facilitating leadership development, how come someone (of course, a composite of different someones)…
• is so focused on delivering the tasks that he gets hardened to the feelings of the people involved and around him – and actually says to me he doesn’t much care how they feel as long as the job gets done
• says that feelings and emotions have no place in the workplace
• says that giving people encouragement and appreciation leads to complacency
• simply cannot name any of her feelings when invited to do so as part of a ‘check in’ at the start of an action learning set
• is so disconnected with his own feelings that he’s utterly thrown – but completely engaged – when I encourage him to name and explore his anger and where that comes from, and connect with his feelings of vulnerability and his longing for someone to understand him
In The Will To Change, the author bell hooks puts forward the view that our work and the way we are working today sets us up to have no space for emotional connection. We ‘are willing to sacrifice emotional connection in order to get the job done’. She goes on to say ‘we are taught to believe that the head and not the heart is the seat of learning and that many of us believe that to speak of [our emotions] with any intensity means we will be perceived as weak and irrational’.
My own research bears that out. Researching the relationship between love and leadership 94% of respondents said love was important in the workplace but 30% said they were uncomfortable talk about it. They said they feared being seen as weak and vulnerable. And that it didn’t have a place at work. I imagine that the results would be similar if I substituted love for feelings.
Thomas Lewis’s A General Theory of Love explains that it’s our limbic system that drives us – so we are hardwired for love and connection. And yet, in our current work context, he says ‘we feel we have triumphed if we have subjugated our emotions’. Work has become about getting things done, creating things and changing things, about productivity and efficiency. As Adam Kahane describes it in Power and Love: ‘organisations have become all about (what he calls) power – the drive for realisation that can produce furiously competitive commercial creativity and growth’. All vitally important, for sure. But at the expense of emotions? At the expense of our humanity, and our hearts? Risking us becoming disconnected with our selves and with other people? Cauterised from our feelings?
That makes me desperately sad. It rings true. But equally, I am determined to find the words to persuade people that our emotional life has a valid place in our working life.
Kahane says ‘Too few of us are capable of employing power with love’. I agree. And I realise that’s becoming a core focus for me. Part of my purpose. How can I help to make it ok for leaders – anyone, for that matter – to truly know that we lead out of who we are and that who we are is our full technicolour range of emotions and that everything is welcome and useful.
I’ll let you know how I get on …