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The Positivity Paradox and the Suppression of “Negative” Emotions

Lots of press about positivity these days. Dr. PurpleMandala is positive about that. What she likes is that beneath it all and fundamentally, the premise is that you are in control of how you experience the world and thus, how you perceive the world. No one else. That does not mean only experiencing positive emotions. It means experiencing the full range of your emotions to understand and perceive your world so that you can navigate it toward your purpose. Your emotions are data and that data is telling you something. From this viewpoint, how can any emotion be negative?

In her book “Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change and Thrive in Work and Life,” Harvard Medical School professor and psychologist Susan David explains the reflexive ways we handle emotion. She says we have a “Tyranny of Positivity” that not only encourages us to ignore emotions like sadness, anger, despair, and grief but that also we live in a culture that actively promotes vehicles to suppress them.

The relentless expectation to be positive inundates our worklife, homelife, and innerlife. We deny or avoid emotions that might indicate something other than life is great. When we can’t ignore them on our own, our culture gives us many things to distract us: media, alcohol, and drugs top this list. It makes for a cold and lonely world where each one of us believes that we are the only one to recognize the breakability of our existence and the grief that comes from losing people and things for which we care about as we move through life.

There is a paradox for leaders embedded in the Tyranny of Positivity. If a leader is to be relentlessly optimistic to inspire and engage the team, how can they also be authentic without displaying their less socially acceptable emotions, too? This is the essence of the Positivity Paradox. Research has indicated that Hope, Self Confidence, Optimism, and Resilience, in combination, have the strongest relationship with both satisfaction and performance. Sometimes humans, even leaders(!), must move through a murky pool of less socially acceptable emotions. How do you acknowledge your emotional state? How do you identify all your emotions, not merely the positive ones, in a productive and insightful way to add to your innerlife? Can you wrestle with all your emotions of your innerlife? And our innerlife positively affects our worklife and homelife. What are you going to do about it?

Native Wisdom, Part 2: It takes a long time to get to know someone

“It takes a long time to get to know someone,” I heard my Father say. He was musing about two close friends who had erupted into battle. After a long heated argument, the two friends determined that the quarrel was the result of a simple misunderstanding. My father waxed philosophically about how two people who presumably knew each other so well could not comprehend the other’s perspective, or even be curious enough to explore it to avert the meltdown.

We act as if our assumptions about the world are correct. We are wandering through this world, operating “as if” what we perceive and believe is true. Our perceptions are shadows cast from our filters. Our filters are formed from what others tell us, what we read, and our experiences. Hardly the most thorough methodology.

The differences in how people view the world can be just as humorous as they are disconcerting. The classic comedy by Abbott and Costello, “Who’s on First,” is an example of two individuals operating with two fundamentally different belief systems, yet failing to comprehend and address this difference. It’s funny because it’s true.

This weekend would have been my Father’s 90th birthday. My Mother and my Father had me very late in life, so our time together was short. He was Cherokee (Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and a tribal elder), had a high school education, was US Marine Sniper in World War II, and a Teamsters Union representative who spent 30 years delivering vehicles to various locations across the United States. He saw a lot, and saw through a lot. Although he wanted me to be a lawyer, his humor, wry perspective, insight, and keen intelligence instead formed me into a psychologist. Through the process of becoming a psychologist, leader, and then a coach of leaders, I found that the more I know, the more I know I don’t know. Yet, his Native Wisdom rings true: It does take a long time to get to know someone. Next time in the heat of a battle, pausing, reflecting, and being curious might be something to explore. Ask yourself some questions: What do you believe about the world? What are your assumptions? Where do they come from and for what purpose do the serve? Perhaps the person it takes the longest to know is ourselves.

Steve Martin on Success

“I did stand-up comedy for 18 years. Ten of those years were spent learning, four years were spent refining, and four years were spent in wild success. I was seeking comic originality, and fame fell on me as a byproduct. The course was more plodding than heroic.” -Steve Martin.

Why are Organizations so Fouled-up*?

It was a question my husband asked over this morning’s breakfast after another of my rants about organizational politics. The answer I gave him was this: You’re fouled up, I’m fouled up, that makes organizations, which are full of people as much or more fouled up as us, even more so. How can organizations not be anything but fouled up given all that fouledupness brewing and simmering together? Then you throw in money and power, and the fouledupitude goes wild. Sadly, he agreed. I’ve consulted or been in over 50 organizations at this point, and I know that there is not one organization that is not fouled up. I challenge you to find one.

How do you avoid being consumed by all the fouled up people in fouled up organizations? Maintain a positive attitude and remember to not take it personally. Even if it is personal. People don’t know you well, so most of any feedback you get is to ensure you meet the organization’s goals or are projections of their insecurities. Or you could be one of the people others are talking about that are so fouled up! Then perhaps you should listen, and listen very carefully.

Now and then a team or a small group of individuals unite around a common purpose and have transparent and authentic relationships with one another. Their whole selves come to the experience, and they focus on something that not only meets their immediate goals but also meets some more lofty purpose. That is the trick for any leader: Alignment of individual and organizational purpose. There are glimpses of it here in there, like the glimmer around Peter in Fringe, where Olivia knew he was from a different world.

*Please substitute foul for any other f word you might choose to use

What is Your Internal State?

As a wise colleague once said, “If you want to find something on the outside, you must first find it on the inside.” Or, in other words, “wherever you go, there you are,” a saying popularized by Buckaroo Bonzai. While coaching executives and with my ongoing work with myself, the truth is that our internal state is the most important aspect of our lives to attend to and manage. And we can manage it. By doing so, we can direct how we perceive our world, what we get done, and what (and who) we attract.

What is your internal state of being? How do you feel right now? How do you usually feel? What is the noise inside your head?  Are you covering up negative feelings with food, alcohol or some more sophisticated gamesmanship where others are the blame for your problems? With what are you surrounding yourself?  With whom? How are your family and friends with their internal state? What is your purpose? Check-in with yourself and others, you might be surprised how you’re feeling. You can change how you think about things. Your reaction to the world is in your control.

A lotus is the most powerful of flowers as it makes its way through the murkiness to the light. Much like our hidden feelings, they too must make their way to the light. Without this process, they remain ever present, controlling us, sometimes choking and stifling us in ways that we don’t understand and keeping us from seeing the light.

Living in a VUCA world: It’s all about energy

Madonna’s song “Living in a Material World” captured the mood and feeling of the 1980s. What phrase captures the moment now? According to some leaders of the largest businesses in the world, we are living in a VUCA world. What is VUCA? VUCA is a military acronym that stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous.

In my day job, I do research with others in my firm along with a well know international university. We are trying to learn what great leaders do that makes them exceptional. Ideally, we want to identify common themes about their thoughts on various leadership topics and how their reflections might differ from the way you and I go about perceiving our world. Our purpose is to not only be able to identify what characteristics make up superior leaders, but to also understand if what makes them exceptional can be coached or taught to others. We ask ourselves if great leadership can be learned then what is needed to create more of them, so that the world will be better led.

It is apparent to the leaders we interview that the world is a much more VUCA place than it once was. Whether this is true, or whether there is only a perception that is true does not matter to these CEOs. To them, the environment of social media mixed with immediate access to global information creates a complex, ever changing landscape of stakeholders that inverts the classic organizational pyramid on its head.

Interestingly, most of the leaders we have interviewed believe that, positive energy is the element that matters most in their own lives and the lives of others. It’s the key critical resource needed. They claim to focus on requiring this energy to have clear, positive and inspiring points of view. They want energy to manage and attend to the needs of the stakeholders that routinely confront them. They want energy to confidently engage, energize and inspire the teams they build. They want energy to develop depth of expertise and the wisdom to apply it. To them, the mechanistic drone like approach to work that infiltrated the Industrial Age is no longer relevant and definitely slipping away. Are these desires and perceptions different from yours?

How do you help the world be better led? It starts with your next interaction. Be the person, be the change you aspire to see. Become conscious of your real purpose in life and access the positive energy of yourself and others around you. Some might do this on a grander scale affecting many more people, but each of our interactions count; especially if we are to create a new shared consciousness or collective unconsciousness that focuses on a more positive way of interacting in our current VUCA world.

A Brain the Size of a Golf Ball

“If you have a golf-ball-sized consciousness, when you read a book, you’ll have a golf-ball-sized understanding; when you look out a window, a golf-ball-sized awareness, when you wake up in the morning, a golf-ball-sized wakefulness; and as you go about your day, a golf-ball-sized inner happiness.
But if you can expand that consciousness, make it grow, then when you read about that book, you’ll have more understanding; when you look out, more awareness; when you wake up, more wakefulness; as you go about your day, more inner happiness.” – David Lynch

Leadership – leading others, your family, or yourself requires consciousness, so the best way to improve your leadership is to expand your consciousness. How do you expand your consciousness? It starts with understanding that you may not have the full picture of reality, or understand other peoples’ perception of reality. This is the primary way that conflict arises: numerous people can view the exact same situation with vastly different perceptions.
Leaders often become leaders because they are comfortable making decisions. They have a level of confidence in their own perception of reality that gives them this ability. Often this confidence is perceptible by those who are unsure about what is happening, and the unsure gravitate toward those who appear surer.
This same attribute can backfire when that confidence continues in new, ambiguous and even chaotic situations. Great leaders continue to increase their consciousness as they become more senior through involving and gathering a broader range of perceptions so that they expand their conscious awareness of what is really going on.
How do you expand your consciousness as a leader? The number one best way is to remain curious. This is especially true when you feel the most sure of your own view. How do you do this? Ask questions. Probe deeper. Listen to the silences, if any, after you speak. Do people feel comfortable sharing their real thinking with you, or do they stammer and hedge their opinions? Has anyone yelled at you or acted angry with you? If not, mostly likely others are holding back around you. By being curious and encouraging other to share their minds and hearts with you, you will ensure you continue to expand your own consciousness, improve your leadership impact and grow your brain bigger than the size of a golf ball.

The Truth About Executive Psychological Assessments

At the most senior levels of leadership in organizations, psychologists often perform psychological assessments to do two basic things:

  1. Selection: To glean understanding of a leader’s ability to fit within the role, context and culture of a new organization or to ascertain whether a promotion will be successful or not.
  2. Development: To help leaders deepen understanding of their leadership impact through what we call “developmental” psychological assessments.

Assessments themselves vary from in-depth intensive one to one interviews, to full blown – multiple day assessment centers, to online survey tools, or various combinations of these. There is a proliferation of business speak and intellectual debate about the viability of some of these tools, including which are better and which are worse. I’m not here to reflect on the merits of the innumerable different methodologies or tools; rather, I want to discuss why you should do them and how you begin. This leads to who should do them which solves your methodology questions, because in the hands of the right professional, the process and tools become less of an issue.

There are three reasons why you absolutely need to do assessments in the first place:

  1. People lie. To themselves, to their colleagues and to their families. Sometimes unintentionally, sometimes because they do not understand what great looks, sometimes on purpose. Assessments attempt to get to the reality about an individual that goes beyond perception.
  2. Leaders have personal agendas. It is difficult for leaders to distinguish between reality and what they perceive to be true. Leaders project their own fears, dreams, or issues onto those around them if they do not understand this about themselves. Frankly, most do not. It is because of this that it is difficult for leaders to objectively judge the merits of those around him or her.
  3. People are extremely complex. People that think they can uncover everything during a brief interaction are delusional (see points 1 and 2 above). Additionally, online tests and surveys at best capture just a few dimensions.

Here’s how you begin:

  1. Find a business psychologist with a PhD and significant experience working with and within organizations. This is important! There are numerous inexperienced professionals who are well intentioned but have never faced the intricate dynamics of organization life themselves.
  2. Uncover what’s important for your organization to achieve its business strategy. Then marry these criteria to a vetted leadership model. If you must, build your own that speaks to the organization’s unique culture, but ground it in the current best thinking.
  3. Conduct assessments against the criteria developed in the previous step for those entering the organization, for those you promote and for those that you think have a chance to be leaders.
  4. Do this for yourself and your employees. Lead by example, which should be a no brainer, but sadly, it is not.
  5. Craft developmental plans that help people engage in gaining additional insight into their impact. Help them uncover their purpose. Follow up, follow up and follow up. Make it fun.
  6. For a kick, step back and look holistically at your results to determine trends and areas of strengths and weaknesses in your leadership pool; plan accordingly.

And that’s how it’s done. Who knows what might be lying underneath all those smiling faces (or yours)? Having an objective external view of your talent gives you a clear picture of how to manage risk as it relates to executing your strategy. Everything thing else is lies, agendas, and delusion.

The Battle for Alignment

“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” – Dwight Eisenhower

I think of this quote often. I live it daily and so do my partners and clients. Not only do I consult to leadership in a variety of different organizations, but I also lead within organizations in which I’m employed. I have made this choice, as opposed to being an independent consultant, because I think there is great value in the insight gained from being a leader in a complex organization when you consult to leaders within complex organizations.

Without fail, there is a time each week when this quote comes to mind. Although I’m someone who enjoys spontaneous and evolving conversations, I prepare in advance as much as I can. I do this through reading, talking to colleagues and in general, collecting and organizing a variety of points of view so that I feel I understand the landscape – as I think it is going to be – in an upcoming “battle.” In this instance, I liken gaining alignment between people to a battle as sometimes it can feel that way. I find this to be the essential requirement of leadership, to bring others together for the sake of getting something done in a certain timeframe. Underlying this is energy engagement, which I feel is what a leader “really” does, but that is a topic for another day.

Even after the alignment is created, which can be a battle in and of itself, the plans that are created don’t work. People change their minds, other priorities emerge, technology doesn’t work, one person is left off an email, or perhaps organizational priorities shift. Clausewitz once opined, “Everything in war is very simple. But the simplest thing is difficult.” The same is true in getting things done in organizations.

What do I recommend to clients and what have I learned to do myself?

  • Be clear about and “in love” with the effect you want to achieve.
  • Maintain emotional distance and do not be “in love” with a specific way to achieve it. It is OK to shift and do things differently even if the decision has been made to do it a certain way. Consciouly chose the right path, not the default path.
  • Take your own emotional pulse – if you fall “out of love” with what you’re trying to achieve, others will too and maybe your intuition is trying to tell you something. What is shifting your focus?
  • Be prepared for wildcards and the unpredictable, something unplanned will happen. Knowing this can take the emotional edge off when things go astray.
  • Be open to new information to build or shift your vision

The battle for alignment is an ongoing process that requires renewal and revisiting as the twists and turns of execution unfold. Eisenhower had it right, planning is necessary while plans go astray. And they always will. How we adjust to it is what organizational life is all about.

The Frog, the Dolphin, and the Giraffe

This past weekend, I found three stuffed animals in a storage box that I had kept since I was three years old. Now 50 some years later, I pondered why I had kept them so long. There was a Frog with a crown, a silvery yet furry Dolphin and a speckled Giraffe with a little red tongue dangling outside its mouth. Presently, they were sewn together piles of dust that “should” be tossed. In the middle of a cold, wet Lake Michigan day in April I could not bring myself to do so, despite my sense of urgency to get my spring cleaning done. As I stood pondering, struck by the fact that they were still with me and wondering why that might be. Remembering that Socrates was attributed with saying “the unexamined life is not worth living,” I continued to reflect. I realized I had not examined the difference between the lifeless artifacts in front of me and the life-filled archetypes they had represented to me as a child. They had somehow remained one in the same, my childhood imaginings captured somehow in these dull lifeless forms.

What is an archetype and why is it important? In Jungian psychology an archetype is a collectively inherited unconscious idea, pattern of thought, or image which is universally present in individual psyches. For instance there is an archetype of a Mother, Father, Hero, and Victim that are well known to most of us. Literature uses these archetypes through their fictional characters to speak to us about their greater truths that lie beyond fact. The media uses archetypes to create connection with their ideas and views beyond what might come about with an interaction with a simple product or consumer item. Individually, we have archetypes which are generalities or stories about ourselves and the world. These stories form scripts that we often follow unconsciously, whether they are correct or not. Many times they operate out of our awareness, guiding us without our knowing. The more closely we examine our stories and scripts, the more we will have examined our lives. My hope is that we all move away from “living a life of quiet desperation” (Thoreau).

To what archetypes did my dust balls speak? It was easy for me to understand the Frog – he was the smart one who could be relied upon for logical, practical and straightforward advice. He was wise and kind, a natural and benevolent leader. He saw things as they were, made things happen and had a realistic view of the world. The Dolphin was equally easy to understand as she was at the opposite end of the continuum, a free spirit looking for adventure, love and laughter with a sweet sense of humor. She had a good nature and was supportive and loyal to her friends. She strived to make her impact positive on those whom she met.

But the Giraffe, named “Baby Giraffe” was a mystery. What had he represented? He was awkward looking, could not stand on his own even when he was new and had big soulful eyes too large for his oversized head. His neck was too long, even for a giraffe, and his back too short, his tiny feet were incapable of holding his weight, his legs too weak. Through the years his long neck had buckled under the weight of his head and his tail had been chewed apart by a dog. Yet, he had been my favorite of the three despite his apparent imperfections. Baby Giraffe had been the joyful one, who ran about getting into mischief, going places he was not supposed to go and saying things he was not supposed to say.

My realizations when I looked at what each represented was that I was all those things, but had let the Frog dominate most of my life and only recently had I reacquainted myself with my dolphin self. She had reentered my life as I tried to free myself from issues that held my energy down. This had occurred through several significant life changes that still have me reverberating. Yet, they had set me off on adventures of travel and love I had only dreamed of. Now, perhaps it is time for me to acknowledge that the frog and the dolphin were really servants of the flawed, fragile, beautiful yet ugly giraffe I had always felt I was underneath it all, but was afraid to acknowledge. Baby Giraffe, the playful, wounded mischievous one, is fully formed as the archetype I adore most in my life, now that the Frog and the Dolphin have made it safe for him to come out and play.