By Annie McKee
Courtesy of Harvard Business Review www.hbr.org
Think about the last time you came home from work completely and totally drained. I don’t mean the good kind of tired, when you’ve worked hard and gotten something done. I’m talking about exhaustion, colored by frustration and tinged with anger. Maybe you even felt hopeless. You were fed up, trying to be nice but snapping at family, wanting nothing more than to crawl into bed (or dive into a bottle of wine). If you’re like me, feeling pissed off and hopeless isn’t your natural state. And for those of us who love our work, feeling negative is doubly painful because it just shouldn’t be this way.
Sadly, though, we spend far too much time and energy dealing with destructive emotions at work — which is no doubt part of the reason so many people are disengaged. It’s also the reason why we often don’t live up to our full potential. When we’re stuck in a dissonant state, we lose our capacity for mindful learning. We don’t process data as quickly or well, and we make bad decisions. We aren’t very creative and we don’t adapt as the world around us changes. We don’t focus, so we don’t get as much done. In short, negative emotions make us less productive.
Then there is the stress. Toxic emotions affect our capacity to manage ourselves. There’s also increasing evidence that in mice — and people too — stress decreases our capacity for empathy. All in all, pervasive negative emotions impact how smart we are, not to mention our emotional intelligence.
What can we do? First, let’s face it: we’ve got to do something. Dissonance is an epidemic in our organizations. Why? Pressure, change, too much work, too few resources — sure, these all affect us, but let’s look at what we can control, starting with how we manage power.
Power, not money, is the real currency in organizations. It gets us what we need to stay “alive”. The strongest people make the calls, show us the way to go. And whether we admit it or not, most people want to be seen as powerful. There are lots of ways to become truly influential at work, some that generate positive emotions, and some that aren’t so good. Healthy ways include striving to be the best at building a great team, and being at the center of information flows. When we wield these kinds of power, we feel pretty good about ourselves, and people trust and want to follow us.
Unfortunately, lots of people either don’t know how to get and keep power in positive ways, or they deliberately engage in destructive, even Machiavellian behaviors. They end up withholding information others need, stirring up trouble, and generally wreaking havoc.
Faced with people who are bad at handling power, we feel our jobs – and therefore our lives — are threatened, and we go into survival mode. We shut out everything in the environment except what we think we need to stay safe. Adaptability? Gone. Creativity? Snuffed out. Ability to take in information and make sense of chaos? Nope.
It isn’t easy learning how to deal with your own and other people’s power while maintaining positive relationships and a sense of personal safety and integrity. But it can be done. First, you need to do a gut check. How do you feel about power? Do you shy away from commanding people? Fight authority? Or conversely, are you constantly seeking the safety of someone else’s shadow? Clearly none of these is a healthy or effective approach. But in truth, many people are either caught in dysfunctional dependency upon people with power, or they are counter-dependent — fighting against them — just to prove they can win. These reactions stem from childhood and all of those old messages about how we should deal with authority. It’s a really good idea to do a bit of thinking about those old assumptions — do they still serve you? If not, it may be time to change. Awareness isn’t everything, of course. But honestly assessing your deep feelings and reactions is a good first step on the path to dealing with negative emotions at work.
For leaders, deepening your self-awareness will help you acknowledge that people see you as powerful (and maybe even a bit scary). Never forget for a moment that your whisper is a shout. As far as your employees are concerned, you hold their fate in your hands, and your emotions spread easily to them. In the end, knowing how to use your power will enable you to consciously choose to create a climate in which everyone can be and do their best.
Let’s not give in to the dissonance that has become the default in so many companies. Let’s take charge — of ourselves, first.
Annie McKee is a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, director of the PennCLO Executive Doctoral Program and the founder of the Teleos Leadership Institute. She is the author of Primal Leadership with Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis as well as Resonant Leadership and Becoming a Resonant Leader.