Look at any ‘To Do’ list, meeting agenda or project plan and you’ll find almost certainly that it’s chock full of things to be done, tasks to be undertaken and issues to be resolved. There’ll be plenty of ‘who what why where and when’ but how much ‘how do you feel about that?’ will there be?
It’s so easy to start jotting down the things we need to do today, the tasks we need to complete, and there are dozens of apps and software programmes designed specifically with that task in mind. You could use a good old fashioned diary, a personal organiser, Microsoft Outlook, the organiser in your PDA. You could make an entry on your Google calendar, email Sandy (your virtual personal assistant) and add an item to your Remember the Milk ‘To Do’ list all with one phone call to Jott, which turns your voice messages into text and fires off a list of tasks to whoever and whatever needs to know about them.
We’re all well versed in pumping out lists of things to be done. Jargon and acronyms galore litter our conversations as we figure out how DCS can meet its stretch targets when CDR has a reduced headcount and funding promised by GDG has now been ring-fenced for a PRA initiative…
But what about how we feel about all this?
We can talk about an over-spend of £800,000 or a headcount reduction of 20%, which is heavy stuff, but can we say it makes us nervous? Does anyone ever ask? Can we talk about how anxious or insecure we feel? About how unsure we are that we can pull it off?
It doesn’t even have to be anything so dramatic. The point is that emotional agendas barely even register with most people in the face of ‘Today’s To Do List’, but they should and they can, as the following three examples testify.
1. Having the Courage to Listen
A fault arises during a new system implementation, which results in a significant negative impact on the client being able to service customers. Customers are unhappy and business has been lost. It’s unclear whether the systems team implementing the changes is at fault or whether the client department gave them poor information to work from. Representatives from both sides meet to thrash things out.
It’s a fair bet that each side will launch into a task-based agenda, lining up their facts, figures and logic, each pressing their case on the other in the hope that they can fix the problem – and prove the other one wrong…
Running under, through and all around the facts, figures and logic will be a sea of emotions; nervousness (fear, even!) that we got it wrong; anger that this has happened at all after all our planning and hard work; irritation that we’re on the spot (I’m on the spot!);concern for themselves, concern for customers, concern for one another. The list could go on.
Would we expect the two teams to first engage in a cleansing and healing emotion-fest? Not at all. Would they benefit, though, from keeping at the forefront of their minds the various emotional stresses that might be at work for each person present? Absolutely. Will these be the same from person to person? Not at all.
Take a look at the chart below and imagine how each person might express their stresses and concerns. While a chart is helpful, for sure, what it really takes to hear people’s fears and concerns is willing and ears – the courage to listen and empathise rather than to talk and convince. In fact, it’s far easier to do the latter when the former has been taken care of.
2. Having the courage to ask
A department engages in a major reshuffle. Managers meet to thrash out the details, spending hours weighing up the various skill-sets, knowledge distribution, experience and personalities of the staff. After considerable planning and organising, the changes are announced.
Would the staff be consulted first? Highly unlikely. Why? There’s no point in opening a can of worms and anyway, if everyone got to express an opinion and argue the toss it would take forever. Will everyone be happy? No. Will they express their feelings about the matter? Absolutely – in twos and threes at their desks, in the coffee room, outside when they’re having a break and in the employee survey.
The emotional content of such matters doesn’t go away because it’s ignored, it often rumbles and seethes. Having the courage to tackle the issue head-on and ask people what their preferences are or at the very least asking them how they feel about the impending changes is courteous and wise. Plus it creates a fantastic opportunity to learn where people are at, to manage their expectations and aspirations, and to manage the accompanying emotions.
3. Celebrating and Harnessing Positive Emotions
The effectiveness of one-to-ones and coaching sessions – whether they’re planned and structured or spontaneous and ad hoc – depends as much on getting the emotional element of the situation right as it does on getting the task-based element right. But in reality it’s the task-based stuff that tends to get the focus because this allows us to avoid the sticky stuff of our emotions.
There’s an assumption behind this that dealing with feelings is necessarily difficult, precarious even. It certainly can be, but it doesn’t have to be so. The Situational Leadership model advises us to consider issues of Skill and issues of Will – the latter being issues of whether we have the desire to do a thing, whether we feel incentivised, secure and confident about it. There is ample scope in here for positivity. In fact, creating a positive atmosphere in which strengths are appreciated and successes are applauded is way more important than the need to highlight weaknesses and focus on shortcomings.
The following quotation from Muhammad Ali’s trainer, Angelo Dundee, perfectly illustrates the subtle and potent interplay between task and emotion, of addressing the emotional context in order to facilitate the task and achieve the goal: