It depends how you frame it

Emotional self-awareness is important in being able to remain calm and frame situations constructively, says Kate Kearins.

Payback for my sabbatical earlier this year: I am doing my boss’s job while he’s on a short period of leave. How different it is, in some ways, when the buck stops here. The final yes and the final no tend to come from the C-suite.

As a manager it’s tempting to say yes because it makes the person in front of you happy. But it can result in inequities and a culture of staff lobbying and toadying.

Saying ‘maybe’ can still mean things get out of control when keen people think it really means yes. And disaffected folk might take it as a no, and feel further disempowered.
Saying no keeps me awake more than anything else. Often it’s about fairness for all – but the person in front of you doesn’t necessarily see it that way. They might feel hurt, angry or disappointed. Trying to do the right thing can be draining. In some ways it feels the opposite of life-giving.

After one of those days, I gave a “Dark-side of Management 101” lecture to my two daughters still living at home. Quoting a former boss, I told them that management is not at all as empowering and idealistic in practice as the textbooks make it sound; oftentimes the manager has three sub-optimal options to choose from – not three great ones that will make everyone happy and create significant value all-round.

It was not a good day… I told them that my boss’s big office was in effect the chief problem office. And that as chief problem officer I was exhausted and would need sympathy, dinners cooked when I got home, washing done, help with the garden. One daughter had already wandered off. She wasn’t finding this approach empowering or life-giving either, especially when she was already picking up a load more of the duties at home. Credit where credit is due.

The other daughter perceptively asked how I reacted as the problems walked through the office door. As a student in the AUT Business School, she offered an example. “What if someone came and told you I was lighting fires in the classrooms downstairs? What would you say?”

The manager in me kicked back in. “My priority would be to make sure everyone was safe. I’d get the person to sound the fire alarm. We’d all exit the building while calling for help to deal with the source of the problem.” I would just do my job with all the good systems around me set up to help.

And, oh yes, through all this I would maintain a sense of professional calm. Calm seems to be a key requisite for life in the C-suite. And what keeps us calm when others are panicking?

Those newly identified ‘nanny’ neurons found in rats on a running regimen work to inhibit brain activity. They have a calming effect on other neurons. The suggestion is that regular exercise will have a similar effect in humans.

Emotional self-awareness is also important in being able to remain calm and frame situations constructively. Research being done by one of my doctoral students suggests a positive feedback loop between regular self-awareness practice (like yoga, meditation, prayer or just time out to think), positive emotions and working to create positive social value.

Taking the time out to exercise and to reflect can be a challenge for ‘busy’ managers. It’s an important contributor to our framing problems as opportunities. Or just better managing. 

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