Why is emotional stability essential to managers and how to spot it with others?

Contrary to a widely held idea, there is no shortcoming for a manager to express emotions. Insensitivity doesn’t stand in for emotional stability. A manager who is sensitive to other persons’ feelings and emotions displays empathy, and a manager who is talented enough to display his own emotions in unison with his audience shows personal charisma. An empathetic attitude is an appropriate skillset to behave in a context requiring emotional intelligence. For instance, a tragic event – such as workplace accident – afflicting a group of people, or a disruptive corporate context such as a restructuring. In the event of a restructuring, being sensitive to others’ emotions enables a manager to adopt the right words, tone and postures in a way that contributes positively to the team cohesion and problem resolution. Thinking about charismatic figures, one could think about well-known business leaders, such as Elon Musk, founder of Tesla Inc., or Steve Jobs, a founder of Apple. Mobilizing their emotions, those charismatic leaders convey their vision with sincerity and persuasion. Be it innate or learned, sensitivity is a useful capability. 

Emotional stability is also a useful capability. It is often described as the capacity to remain calm while experiencing a stressful situation. The image that comes to my mind is that of ducks, wiggling their webbed feet to swim in a lake while an observer standing on shore can look at them glide gracefully and almost effortlessly. The image isn’t about hiding one’s own feelings but being able to not react or talk under emotional stress. There are 6 primal emotions that can possibly take control over our facial expressions under stress according to a classification in 1972 by Paul Elkman, an American psychologist: fear, anger, disgust, sadness, happiness and surprise. Later in 1990, Elkman added – for adults mainly – distraction, satisfaction, discomfort, excitement, guilt, success pride, relief, sensory pleasure, shame and contempt.

Why is it essential for a manager to display emotional stability?

  • Because some management essential skills are wiped out in times when negative emotions take control: team leadership; decision making; dispute mediation; giving confidence to others; energizing a team; fairness in all circumstances. 
  • Because it’s not the situation that is stressful but the perception by the manager of that very situation. For example, a social conflict will have a different impact on a manager who has faced several previous similar cases successfully and on a manager who fears that things will go wrong. 
  • Because the situation that a manager deems as stressful because it is exceptional to him or her, may be regarded as ordinary by his team, peers or supervisors. In such instance, a manager will be tagged as emotionally unstable. Would a manager feel relief, anger or discomfort in synch with others and find the right words to express those emotions, he would be deemed charismatic. Would he not be personally impacted by the stress felt by team members but know how to perceive it and deal with it, he would be deemed empathetic. 

There is a thin line between charisma, empathy and emotional stability. Apple and Tesla founders seem to have displayed over time constant charisma, sometimes empathy and less frequently emotional stability. According to Steve Jobs’ biography by Walter Isaacson, the visionary and creative leader was characteristically introspective but also famous for his incredible keynote speeches and product launch shows, unfair and conciliatory with key staff members, frequently irritable and impassive alike. Tesla founder recently made headline news because his emotional messages on social media have had visible consequences on stock-listed share price of his company. He eventually compromised in April this year to have his social media contributions approved before publication in order to end a litigation with the US stock exchange watchdog.

Emotional stability, in contrast with charisma and empathy, may be less characteristic of great leaders, but it is – as we’ve seen – essential to great managers. 

The question then is how to spot emotional stability with others. For instance, while carrying a recruitment, an evaluation for a new position or a new mission. 

Behavioral preferences provide an answer. Behavioral preferences, or tendencies, are the result of a process in which our brain will filter information flowing in from outside of us by selecting pieces of information based on our preferences and centres of interest, interpreting them with the filter of our experiences, our beliefs and values, and finally modifying reality by distorting it with mind-reading, causal relations and assumptions. NLP, an acronym of Neurolinguistic Programming, drawing on the work of 20th century psychologists and therapists such as Fritz Perls, Virginia Satir and Milton Erickson, encapsulated those processes repeated thousands of times daily under the concept of “metaprogrammes”. Metaprogrammes are often introduced in pairs of opposed behaviors. For instance, “towards vs. away from”. Metaprogrammes describe a preferred path to do something or say something. “Towards” is when a person’s attention is directed towards what they want, and “away from” towards what they don’t want. A metaprogramme is useful or limiting depending upon context. Going towards people is helpful in trade, while avoiding getting injured or killed is useful for a fire fighter. When associated, metaprogrammes allow us to perceive behavioral capacities (or preferences) that will be displayed in a certain context. For example, it is possible to associate ”towards” and “other reference” (opposed in pair to “self reference”). in order to determine a person’s openness to others. I believe that we all have examples in mind of people of easily talk to others but permanently talk in reference to themselves. It is indeed the association of 2 metaprogrammes that enables to diagnose a desirable behavior. 

With regards to emotional stability, 2 metaprogrammes shall be associated: «solution orientation” and “present time orientation”.

“Solution orientation” is paired with its opposite “problem orientation”. Identify what is going wrong and pin down what needs be changed can be seen as a managerial skill. It is only partly true. It is useful to be conscious of issues, but it is unhelpful to spend too long on problems. In the course of evolution, the human brain has acquired the neurological capacity to construct languages, but it hasn’t yet acquired the capacity to represent itself a non-thing. In other words, the only way to represent oneself something that we do NOT want is to think about that thing. For instance, someone who wants to quit smoking and thinks “I want to quit smoking” represents himself with a cigarette. If I ask you “Do NOT think about a green giraffe”, I bet you that what comes to your mind is precisely a giraffe… a green giraffe. Positively, someone who wants to do sport will be represent himself exercising. By doing so, he will direct his attention to what he wants. He will be solution-oriented rather than problem-oriented when he wants to exercise instead of smoking. It is appropriate to be emotionally stable to draw oneself an image of the solution and not the problem. Solutions are associated to positive and helpful emotions while problems are associated to negative and limiting ones. 

The second pair of metaprogrammes playing a role in emotional stability is: “present time orientation” vs. “future time orientation”. A manager can draw energy to act, motivation to undertake and capability to lead others in relation to a timeline: past – present – future. A person who frequently refers to the future is drawing energy in his outlook: success, money, happiness. A manager drawing his energy in the present time finds resources to act, motivations and capacities anchored in the actual state of things. Confronted to a difficulty generating an emotional stress, a future time-oriented person will look at the problem as standing between him and the source of his energy. Depending on circumstances, he will feel anger, discouragement, shame, even sometimes turned against others in contempt. The manager whose source of energy is anchored in present time will not face the same emotional patterns because the difficulty he encounters doesn’t stand between him and the future. 

Finally, it is useful to know that behaviors – and metaprogrammes alone – are not definitively acquired and can be modified. Emotional stability, and also openness to others, persuasiveness, adaptability among others, can be developed in a professional context with several forms of assistance including coaching and meditation.

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