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Chief Energy Officer…Commenting on Tony Schwartz

18 Apr

Has anyone in leadership ever said to you, “Oh, it’s nothing to worry about” and your instant response was to worry about it?  Welcome to the club!   That’s why Tony Schwartz‘ latest blog over at the Harvard Business Review caught my eye: “Embracing What’s Wrong to Get to What’s Right”.  In it, Tony talks of how fast growing, entrepreneurial organizations are rife with stress and overload.

I’ve seen it as well, and I applaud Tony’s approach.  One of my early stumbles here was directly related to me not taking this approach.  Tony’s five key points

1. Because human beings have a strong “negativity bias,” we pay more attention to our bad feelings than to our good ones.

I am as Pollyanna as they come.  I’ve always been puzzled by the folks that would say “If you can keep your head at times like these, perhaps you don’t understand the situation”.   Some have accused me of not caring, taking things too lightly, joking at inappropriate times.  I’m sure it’s a defense mechanism on my part.   When it comes to problems, my initial reaction may be negative, but I push past it quickly, leaving puzzled friends, family and coworkers in my wake.

I’ve always considered it an asset, not letting things get to me, keeping a positive attitude.  I’ve begun to realize that this only helps me, it doesn’t necessarily help anyone I interact with…  especially when whatever it was that was bothering me does come back to the surface (where did THAT come from?)

2. Negative emotions do feed on themselves, but the solution — especially for a leader — is not to squelch or downplay them.

Here is the key skill.  This is something that they don’t teach you in MBA school (and certainly not in engineering school).  If you can shine a big spotlight on the negative emotions they will eventually wither and die.  Try to bury them?  Not a good idea, they just continue to grow and get stronger, manifest themselves in different ways.

3. Since we all feel negative emotions at times, especially under high demand, it’s important to provide forums at work in which they can be shared openly and without fear.

The key words here? openly and without fear.   If there is any fear of  ‘retribution’ the openly part ain’t ever gonna happen.  The thing that I struggle with is, how long can I bite my tongue when the bitch session goes on endlessly.  The example that Tony used in his blog is so elegant, and it worked so well.  It reminds me of watching the Food Network, or DIY.  Boy that souffle (or cabinet) looks so easy to make.  How come when I do it, it tastes/looks like crap?

4. Because emotions are so contagious, all leaders are effectively Chief Energy Officers.

When I think of the best leaders I’ve met, this is the key element.  I recall meeting George Bush (the first one) when he was VP.  There was an aura, an energy that the TV cameras missed.   He was always portrayed as a somewhat weak character (think of the Dana Carvey impressions).   His presence/energy t took me by surprise (at that time in my life, I was not what you’d call a Reaganite).  There was a quality there that was unmistakable.  The same can be said for many other leaders that I have had the pleasure of interacting with.   It’s something I admire, I have a LONG way to go…

5. The highest skill — whatever your role — is the willingness to embrace opposite feelings without choosing up sides. 

I do like the word choice here.  There is a technique that is taught in the Dale Carnegie Sales Advantage training class for ‘smoking out objections’.  While the end goal is to work through sales objections, at the basic level the idea is to allow people the space, and the grace, to voice their objections.  You are taught to listen, to question, to dive deep into the detail of the situation without agreeing or disagreeing.   If you can master this, I believe the rest is easy,  we all just want to be heard.

The final step is to allow the team to turn the emotion positive.

I’ve really enjoyed the new set of advertisements that GE has put out, where their employees go plane-side/track-side to see their jet engines/locomotives in action.  People cheer, there’s an occasional tear wiped away.

Back in the dark ages, as a fresh-out-of-school engineer, I witnessed this first hand.  My employer, Pratt & Whitney Aircraft, was celebrating their 50th anniversary.  The flew in an example of nearly every type of aircraft equipped with PWA engines for a weekend celebration.  Not much work was done the week before and the day after, as we all stood at the edge of the airfield and watch vintage and not-so vintage aircraft arrive and leave.

On the Monday after the show, a group of us stood in awe as an F16 pilot kicked in the afterburner of his F100 equipped fighter jet directly in front of us.  The sound was deafening.  He stood that jet up on its tail like a rocket ship a flew straight up into the stratosphere until he was completely out of sight.   It was a sight none of us would ever forget.  There WERE lumps in the throat.  There WERE tears of pride.  Office morale was unbelievable for the next few weeks.

THIS IS NOT PHONY.  People crave an emotional connection to their career.  If you can’t take time, put the emotion aside, and honestly say, “what I do here really matters”, then perhaps you are in the wrong place.

– RTR