Emotion and why it scares businesses and consultants

19th November 2015
By
If you have ever experienced….

frustration or boredom at work then you know what it feels like to be stuck. If you have felt anxiety or anger around sudden and unexpected change you know how stressful it can be. If you have ever faced scorn and derision from your team because they feel nothing is getting better for them, you know how painful that can be.

We all have our stories of emotional times, which we can reflect on years later as lessons learned, scars of battle, steps taken forward. But we rarely ask what we could have done to recognise the emotion in a situation more quickly and take some of the pain out of it.

A common context for emotion in business is to look at its use in creativity.

Necessity is the mother of invention

A traditional approach to creativity training is to tap into the unconscious mind and stay as calm as possible while you search for the big insight or suddenly find that Eureka moment. But there is another way. You can put yourself and your team under pressure to find a solution in a very short timespan. Doubt, anxiety and uncertainty can be just as effective as being calm and relaxed when it comes to generating new ideas. You’re just using a different form of energy.

Creativity workshops focus on a non-judgemental approach to idea generation. It can be just as helpful to apply the same principle of non-judgement to people’s feelings and emotions about the task ahead. It’s good to feel vulnerable. It’s good to feel anxious. It’s good to share those feelings. It helps groups of people to access a broader range of cognitive resources to bear on the problem.

The issue is that many businesses are phobic about anxiety. They see it as a negative emotional state, when it can bring real clarity and purpose to the situation. By all means get someone in from outside to facilitate – research shows that this is more effective that doing it yourself – but don’t let anxiety turn to panic and call in consultants to solve your problem for you. You might think that you can outsource your problem to consultants. You can’t. It’s still your problem, even when they’ve finish all their consulting.

So why do so many consultants fail to recognise emotion?

Emotions are unpredictable and uncontrollable. That doesn’t fit in a world of models and processes and standards and protocols. So the easy way to deal with all of that messy emotional stuff is just to ignore it and make the assumption that everyone will behave rationally throughout the change management/restructuring/development process. The reality is that once you start to put a lid on emotion, especially in groups, the very act of control intensifies the emotion. You’re adding insult to injury. People can start to panic, and that’s when you begin to see some really weird behaviour. The kind of behaviour we would rarely do on our own becomes acceptable in an anxious group. You also start to erode trust, and it can take months or years to win it back.

This is aggravated by the fact that many consultants deliberately hold a position of detachment from their client in order to ‘maintain their objectivity’. That’s fine, right up to the point where it becomes a denial of the reality of the situation, where there’s a whole mess of emotions that no-one’s dealing with and the project risks being derailed. Good consultants will take emotions into account, and deal with what they find. That builds empathy, which increases trust.

Very often in large businesses the senior team will hire consultants deliberately to do their dirty work for them. They believe this allows them to stay in their ivory towers, away from the cut and thrust of everyday business challenges. In truth, many of them feel vulnerable, insecure or frustrated themselves. Many of the same emotions their staff are feeling. Rather than using those shared feelings to bridge the gap, they are what drives a wedge between people in the business.

Share a little of your pain and you might be surprised at the response you get. It’s unlikely to make things worse.

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