Is It Possible To Lead Someone Who’s An Emotional Wreck ?

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Leading and leadership is easy, powerful and productive when you have people who look to you for vision and direction, when you have people who have bought into the mission and see that it is a win for them, for you, and for the organisation, and who have the ability to contribute as a team player. When you have all of that—leadership is fun, energizing and a piece of cake.

But then there are those “difficult people” who don’t have all of those prerequisites. Or, you have someone who feels threatened by your leadership, by what you are proposing. There is also the phenomenon of people bringing their problems to work so that when they arrive they are feeling insecure, upset, troubled and preoccupied. In a word, they are an emotional wreck.

We’ve all been there. All it takes is an overwhelming crisis and boom! We are put back there! This isn’t a situation outside the norm of everyday life. It happens all the time. And when it does, the leadership questions that then arises are—

  • How can I be at my emotional best when others are at their emotional worst?
  • How can I avoid blowing up so I provide effective leadership when I have to deal with someone who is an emotional wreck?
  • How can I demonstrate a calm and effective leadership when people are “emotional?”
  • What skills and competencies do I need when colleagues, employees, managers, suppliers, CEOs, customers, etc. get emotional?

Now with all of the emphasis in the past decade on emotional intelligence, shouldn’t we be able and ready to quickly answer these questions? In his 1999 book, Primal Leadership Daniel Goleman argues that leadership that resonates well with people is at its core “emotional”. Leadership deals not only with the behaviors and thoughts of followers, but their emotions as well.

I recently became aware of all this afresh when coaching Brenda, a Senior Manager at an international corporation. Brenda had to confront Bill, a supervisor, about some behaviors that were not acceptable. The challenge for her was that Bill was an especially strong-willed guy with a strong aggressive drive and quick to become hot-headed. These traits, as his strengths, explained his quick rise in the ranks and also explained his constant conflicts with people. Having been verbally warned numerous times as well as having received several “letters” in his file, Brenda now had to call him in, confront him about a new complaint, and probably issue another letter.

Entering her office, it was obvious that Bill was in no state to engage in problem solving. He moved stiffly as he entered the office. His eyes stared at her as if looking for a fight and he spoke with a strained voice. The atmosphere was tense and Brenda herself felt a sense of dread and even threat as Bill stormed in, jerked a chair streaking it across the floor, and said, “Okay, what is it now that you want to jump on me about?”

But Brenda had prepared for this day. We had spent time together in her executive coaching to specifically work on such confrontations. That’s because the other side of the challenge for Brenda was that confrontations had always been her weakness and confronting strong negative emotions were her worst nightmare. Yet even though she felt like completely avoiding this, and feeling a sinking feeling inside as well as her own heart and lungs pounding away, she took several deep breaths and used her relaxing skills to remind herself of the things she had been learning in her coaching:

  • Emotions are just emotions and not reality.
  • Emotions are just emotions and do not necessarily lead to behaviour.
  • Emotions are signs of meaning and perception of the person emoting.
  • While emotions are contagious and invite us to personalise them, it is still our choice.
  • We can avoid personalising by giving people permission to have their emotions and to remember that they are their emotions, not ours.
  • Emotional control comes through embracing them, not fighting them.

“Bill, I’m concerned about you, are you okay?” Brenda asked, ignoring his invitation to a fight.

“I’m fine! There’s nothing wrong with me, except I’m wasting my time in here when I have so much to do. Why did you call me in here this time?” Bill said with a raised voice.

“So is that why you seem stressed, talking so fast and with such strain in your voice? [Bill didn’t answer but paused and took a deep breath . . .] So, [pause . . . breathing along with Bill] . . . do you really not know why I called you in?”

“Yeah, yeah, it’s one of those snitches that can’t keep their nose out of my business. What lies are they telling now?”

“I really don’t know. That’s why I wanted to find out your side of things. We first have to do some fact finding before we can talk about how to make things better.”

“We both know what you’re trying to do! This is just a set up to put another warning letter in my file!” Bill said pointing his index finger and raising his voice again.

Instead of snapping back as she felt like doing, Brenda took a deep breath, paused for what seemed like minutes and then looked at Bill knowing the angry defensive emotions he was expressing indicated stress and a strong sense of threat. “Getting another warning letter is the last thing you want!” she said, putting into words what he felt but had not said.

“You’re damn right! I definitely don’t need that.” he said slowing down his voice as he ended.

“Guess you’re feeling like you can’t afford another one, that it might ruin things in terms of any promotion or moving up to where you really want to be.” Brenda continued, matching Bill’s values and beliefs thereby conveying a sense of understanding.

“Yes, of course.” he said in a more normal voice.

“So what are the facts Bill that we have to address and how can we address them in a way that will allow you to move to the level that you want to move to?”

Having paced Bill’s state, Brenda’s problem solving question now put the content of things on the table. This led Bill to state some of the facts and for them to begin to work out a plan to avoid him violating company policy.

Brenda later reported to me that she was absolutely surprised at how embracing the emotions, even the strong aggressive emotions, without personalising was so paradoxical in its effect.

  • “I would never have believed it if I didn’t see it calm him down. I never really believed that ‘saying words that match the person’s state’ would have been so powerful.”

Brenda did admit that throughout the entire process she had to really work on her own state and to remember that she first had to defuse Bill as a hot-headed and cranky person and that she had to patiently wait before she could get to the actual problem-solving.

  • “I would never have been able to do that even a month ago. It was the imagined practices in my coaching that enabled me to have such presence of mind and to realise that none of it had anything to do with me, but that I could be an effective leader if I start where he is, rather than where I think he ‘should’ be and simply walk through the stages of pacing, acknowledging, defusing, inviting and then problem solving.”

So is it possible to lead people who are at their emotional worst? When they are in stress, even stressed-out, feeling insecure and coming on like a cornered bear? While this is a tremendous test for leaders, the answer is yes. We can even learn to lead and lead through facilitative coaching to bring out the best in our people knowing that they are more than their emotions or behaviors.

Michael Hall

L. Michael Hall is a modeler of human excellence and self-actualization. Since 1992 Dr. Hall has focused on modeling “the highest and best in human experiences.” This modeling focus arose first from his studies of NLP and later in his re-discovery of Maslow’s original modeling of self-actualizing men and women.

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