THE LETTING IT ROLL OFF YOUR BACK FALACY

At times of stress, it is always valuable for a manager to keep her or his “COOL”.  Subordinates are watching and there is something reassuring about a boss who is able to stay calm, unflappable, and able to handle the stress of the management job without always showing it.

I believe there are some individuals who actually do have ice water in their veins — fighter pilots, especially those who land on aircraft carriers, come to mind — and for whom staying calm under pressure and stress seems to come naturally.  But in my experience, both professional and personal, most of us have to work harder at it.

But staying calm at times of stress does not mean that we must constantly bottle up the legitimate negative feelings and emotions that often accompany negative daily events.  Such emotions generally are better expressed, both for our own psychological health and the potential benefit and enlightenment of any individuals that may have given them rise.

Unfortunately, many managers regularly withhold their negative feelings towards subordinates, colleagues, and superiors for a variety of reasons, often pretending — to themselves and others — that they are simply letting things pass or roll off their backs.  These are the managers I often refer to as the “emotional backpack stuffers”.

Imagine that each day as you head to work as a manager, you don an invisible backpack ideally designed for holding unexpressed emotions.  When frustrated, upset, angered, irritated, annoyed, hacked off, whatever, rather than express how you are actually feeling, you simply reach around and deposit that emotion in your pack.  Days, weeks, perhaps even a month or two pass and by now that pack has become pretty darn heavy.  There is a lot of pent-up emotion in there just waiting expression.

Then one day something happens or somebody does something that gets under your skin and out the emotion comes.  The trouble is that often the amount of emotion and its intensity is out of proportion to the event that precipitated its expression.  To the receiver or witnesses of your emotional unloading, your anger, frustration,  decibel level, and duration of expression seems excessive and inappropriate.

If you can relate to this phenomena, you are one of many who find expressing their emotions and feelings real-time difficult and there is no management training in my experience that can change this aspect of our personalities.  However, most of us can learn to identify the signs that the weight of our emotional backpack is increasing and we can discipline ourselves to couple our emotional expressions — difficult or not — to the events that trigger them.

I defer to mental health professionals when it comes to counseling those for whom emotional expression, in general, is extremely difficult or a life-long challenge.  But for managers I have long advised that it is unwise to let emotions build up over time.  The heavier your backpack, the more personally confusing your reaction to specific events may seem, the more inappropriate any given expression of emotions might become, and the more confused others might be concerning the true nature of your reaction to some event.  Something that is not OK, for example, may seem OK to others in the face of no negative response from you.

As a person, you have the right and as a manager, the responsibility, to provide negative feedback where warranted and to express natural human emotions when they arise.  While excessive emotional expressions are never helpful, no expression at all only confuses, avoids a learning opportunity, and risks an inappropriate expression down the road.

The unknown is always how precisely the receiver of your emotional expression will respond.  Fear of an equally emotional, confrontational response is what underlies a great deal of managerial conflict avoidance, a consistent practice that eventually undermines a critical responsibility of a manager’s job: the provision of honest feedback where required. For this reason, all managers must learn to TRUST that they can express themselves honestly — both intellectually and emotionally —  to others and successfully cope with the reactions that occur.

The best managers in my experience work at this throughout their management careers.  Dealing with emotions and conflict in the workplace is never easy.  But conflict avoidance and constantly carrying a heavy emotional backpack is dangerous and threatening to the successful execution of key managerial roles.  The best managers are unwilling to run such risks.

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