Have you ever heard, “There’s no place for feelings at work?” We like to think that we can block out feelings at work but we can’t. Feelings are an integral part of who we are. Dr. Jill Bolte-Taylor noted that while many of us think of ourselves as thinking creatures who feel; biologically we are feeling creatures who think.[i]
Over time, we learned to value thinking and facts and deny feelings. And yet, as advances in neuroscience are showing, feelings are a key part of your intelligence. To use feelings is not about being carried away by each whim or passing fancy. It’s about having the self-awareness to discern the source of the feeling and learn to constructively put it to work as a leadership asset.
There are several ways that your feelings are helpful. One of those is that feelings can identify issues you might otherwise miss but you have to first pay attention.
I heard it over and over from leaders. When faced with a difficult decision, leaders noticed if they were hesitant. They used phrases like, “Something is bugging me.” “This is just not sitting right.” “Something seems amiss.” They described a nagging feeling that was….well, nagging. Rather than shove it aside, effective leaders made note of it. With experience, they learned that the nagging feeling, that sense of unease, was something worth paying attention to.
When they felt that uncomfortable tug, they knew to pause before deciding and examine the situation further. The nagging feeling pointed to issues that needed additional attention.
Interestingly, the nagging feeling may not be asking you to seek more data. Instead it may be pointing to some part of the situation that is about the context or impact of the decision. The nagging feeling points to issues that transcend mountains of data. Perhaps it’s more about the people involved or the political ramifications.
The next time you find yourself hesitating over a difficult decision, try this technique. First, notice your hesitation. Second, acknowledge the nagging feeling. See if you can put words to the feeling —anger, fear, discomfort, resentment. To name the feeling makes it more tangible and, perhaps, more manageable. It gives you more information to work with. Third, pay attention to the issues the nagging feeling points to and follow up. What needs further probing? What other questions should you ask? Who else needs to be involved? For example, say you are considering a new policy for the company but something holds you back. What’s bugging you about it? You may say, “I’m worried about how it will be received by our front line managers.” Worried is the feeling. Now you can probe this further. What is it you need to ask about front line managers? Is there something more to be considered?
Time and again, the executives said that they made their biggest mistakes when they ignored the wisdom the nagging feeling was trying to bring to them. To be an effective leader, you can’t afford to ignore a key part of your own wisdom.
The next time you try to push your feelings aside…stop. Notice your hesitation; acknowledge the uncomfortable feeling; and follow-up where it leads. It will make you a more effective leader.
[i] Bolte-Taylor, Jill, My Stroke of Insight, The Penguin Group, 2006.