Leading through emotion

Leading through emotion

Art as a toolbox for leadership insights
13 min.
October 2017
Discovery Event
Artists-as-leaders and leaders-as-artists

Successful artists, like leaders, generally start off with a vision and are the first to create something. They are often ahead of their time, able to visualize things that do not yet exist, passionate and dedicated to transforming their vision into reality. In many cases, that involves communicating their passion to others to motivate them to execute their vision.

Leaders, like artists, are inspired by a vision for their organization; they need to galvanize others to execute that vision.

Artists and leaders both need aesthetic intelligence and must constantly innovate and communicate their ideas. Just as artists touch people’s emotions through their work, leaders need to touch their teams’ emotions to bring them on board and get them to follow, using meaning and significance as drivers.

Emotions allow people to connect with one another, and by recognizing and acknowledging their subordinates’ emotions, leaders can create the psychological safety that allows their teams to innovate and perform at their best. But what place are emotions truly given in the workplace?

Setting the stage: Connecting through artistic expression

Professor Toegel asked participants to work in teams to produce a drawing. They were allowed to discuss the task among themselves. She then asked the teams to draw another picture and give it a title, this time in silence. For the first drawing, everyone focused on the task, as is often the case in the workplace.

For the second drawing, everyone concentrated on what the others were doing, building on their ideas. Participants described the process of the second task as more meaningful and more fun – with collective laughter outbursts as various team members added surprising twists to the drawings. They also described the output as more creative and innovative. Paradoxically, silence can sometimes be the best way to communicate.

A compelling example of the power of communicating through silence is performance artist Marina Abramovich’s installation at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art entitled The Artist is Present, which lasted three months. Two chairs faced each other in the middle of a large open space. Abramovic sat on one and invited museum visitors to sit on the other and join her in silent communication. Video clips of the event show people expressing a huge array of emotions – anxiety, discomfort, sadness, happiness – entirely through facial expressions, body language and eye contact.

Minding emotions

Silence is used in various ways to focus attention: Silence in commercials increases attention to and retention of information; comedians use silence for effect. Silence between two people may indicate a breakdown in communication but it could also mean that they are attuned, at one with each other. Some find silence disconcerting, others relish it. Observing a minute’s silence in remembrance of people who have passed away creates a sense of a shared history, an emotional bond, and can facilitate affiliation.

Being silent is thus a way of achieving mindfulness – being in the moment and aware of one’s surroundings. Organizational leaders are required to achieve results, which they do by executing specific tasks. Their focus is thus generally on actions rather than on the emotions of others. Yet this can affect creativity, productivity and efficiency.

By being mindful of people’s emotions, for example through “silent” exercises (similar to the team drawings mentioned earlier), leaders can boost connections with and among team members, which can promote creativity, productivity and efficiency. This means observing and experiencing emotions in oneself as well as in others, which requires being in the present moment. Using silence in a team setting can create connections beyond the task. Another exercise borrowed from the world of performance art could be to ask team members to form pairs and sit face to face in silence for one minute and then share their observations and feelings. Or, more daringly, get team members to wear blindfolds and headphones and walk around the room. People will inevitably bump into each other. What do they do? How do they react?

Understanding emotion: Personality as a driver of emotion

Emotion is largely driven by who we are – our personality. The five-factor model of personality, the Big Five, offers a comprehensive, unifying framework for identifying five personality dimensions: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability and openness to experience. Each of these dimensions comprises six facets. A Big Five personality test reveals preferences on five main dimensions, or personality drivers, and their respective facets. The unique combination of someone’s preferences is what defines their personality and drives their behaviors.

Extraversion describes one’s comfort level with relationships. Extroverts tend to maintain a large number of relationships. Introverts tend to be reserved and have fewer relationships.

Agreeableness refers to a person’s propensity to defer to others. High scorers value harmony over having their own way. Low scorers focus on their own needs more than on those of others. Business leaders tend to score lower in this dimension as this correlates strongly with promotion, but this characteristic makes it harder for them to form a balanced team of people with a range of preferences. Their team members are thus less likely to be open to disclosing to others due to the lack of psychological safety. Yet, as researchers at Google found, a high willingness to disclose is an important factor in boosting innovation.

Conscientiousness is about the number of goals on which a person focuses. High scorers pursue fewer goals and tend to be responsible, persistent and achievement-oriented. Low scorers tend to be more easily distracted, less focused and more hedonistic.

Emotional stability defines a person’s ability to process negative emotion. People high on this dimension tend to be resilient, while those at the other end of the scale tend to be anxious and nervous. One way to diffuse these feelings is by naming the emotion like singer-songwriter Adele does. She manages her performance anxiety by sharing how she feels with her audiences.

Openness to experience refers to one’s range of interests. High scorers are fascinated by imaginative, creative and intellectual activities. People who are low in this dimension tend to prefer the familiar. Companies are increasingly trying only to recruit explorers, but this is risky because executors are needed for implementation.

Why does all this matter? When a person’s actions are not in accord with their natural preferences, there is a preference gap, which results in a personal cost in terms of time, stress, effort or energy. Being aware of preferences allows us to predict our own emotions and those of our team members. It helps to understand what makes us and others happy or unhappy and what concerns we and they have and how these can be alleviated. It also increases our awareness of when to release the decompression valve to avoid overflow and to redress the balance. For example, if an introvert has a people-facing job that involves a lot of interacting, they need to ensure that they set aside some peaceful down-time at the end of their work day to decompress and recharge their batteries.

Leaders can use the Big Five personality tests to map out their own profile and those of their team members. Disclosing the relevant information within the team helps everyone concerned understand and predict behaviors and avoid issues. Additionally, different personality profiles bring a variety of skills and abilities to the team. The real stars of the show are not always those in the foreground.

One of the reasons that everyone remembers The Beatles drummer Ringo Starr was because the band consciously presented itself as the “Fab Four” rather than as a front man (or two) with a supporting band. Ringo was elevated on the stage so he could be seen. The band knew that Ringo’s ground-breaking creativity was key to their success, even if he was not the best drummer technically.

Recognizing, valuing and utilizing the specific characteristics and emotional profiles of each team member can increase the psychological safety that is essential to disclosure, which is key to boosting creativity and innovation.

Managing emotion

While it is important to open the door to emotions, it is equally essential to describe them accurately. There are numerous words in the English language to describe emotions; it has at least 60 different ways just to describe the emotion of “anger.” Naming emotions more precisely invites others to ask more specific questions, for example: Why are you resentful? About whom? What can you do about it? This is more actionable than focusing on what or how someone feels. Feeling bad, sad, blue or melancholic are different nuances of a similar feeling and may require a different response to dissipate the feeling; “openness” to change is not the same as “embracing” change; and saying “I am angry” is vaguer than “I am resentful about…”. Furthermore, you would not respond in the same way to someone who is irritated and someone who is infuriated. So granularity and nuances help others better understand what one feels and how to react. The emotion circle (Figure 1) shows how the eight primary emotions – anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, anticipation, trust and joy – interact and vary in intensity.


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