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4 Ways Emotional Awareness Enhances Leadership Skills

By October 7, 2015November 12th, 2015No Comments

Beyond the financial reward for Disney/Pixar and the entertainment value for families the hit movie “Inside Out” offers serious mind-brain leadership lessons for entrepreneurs who have the courage and heart to listen to all of their emotions.

Through the magic of Pixar animation we enter the “Inside Out” world of 11-year-old Riley as she learns to navigate the changes and uncertainty that come with being uprooted from her happy and stable life in Minnesota and transplanted to a new life in San Francisco. Her main allies and barriers to adjustment include the playfully personified emotions of joy, anger, disgust, fear and sadness. These emotions jockey for position in curating her memories and running the mind-brain console inside “headquarters” that influence her perceptions and control her behavior. Ultimately, Riley adjusts to her new surroundings by claiming and integrating ALL of her emotions.  Even the ones that most of us typically avoid or label as “bad”.

A recent New York Times article looked at the science behind “Inside Out”.  While the emotions and environment of an 11-year-old girl have clear distinctions from that of an adult, there are profound parallels to what entrepreneurs experience in starting and running their own business. Here are some important lessons that entrepreneurs should take to heart.

1. Emotions contain valuable information.

At the most basic level fear keeps us safe, anger clues us into injustice, sadness allows us to feel compassion for ourselves and others, disgust tells us what to avoid and joy connects us to life’s highs.

In the film, trouble begins when joy seeks to shut out sadness and confine her to a small circle. Eventually both joy and sadness find themselves cut off from influencing Riley, leaving anger, disgust and fear to run the show. Riley, operating without her full range of emotional information, is overwhelmed by her new circumstances and becomes increasingly distanced from others.

When available and integrated, our emotions alert us to problems and opportunities, connect us to others and mobilize us for action. This is particularly important for entrepreneurs. Starting your own business can be one of the most emotional times in your career.  If you are cut off from any of your emotions you block out valuable information and may miss out on important opportunities.

Leaders who are emotionally present, accept emotions in others and display emotions appropriately are seen as more trustworthy and competent during times of change and upheaval.

2. We need emotions to make tough decisions.

Neuroscience studies show that injury to brain regions associated with emotions impairs decision-making. Starting your own business is complex and full of uncertainty. These situations call for decisions that consciously integrate reason, emotion and intuition.

Emotions are also important in morally ambiguous situations. Those churning feelings in your gut, sometimes accompanied by disgust, help us make good and moral decisions. Entrepreneurs often have to make “gut” decisions. It is critical that you tap into your emotions to make sound decisions.

Good decision making calls for emotional agility. While sadness is an important emotion, getting stuck in sadness without understanding how to shift emotional gears can lead to “myopic misery”. The Financial Costs of Sadness may be impatience and poor decision making.

Chronic fear and anxiety impacts attention, learning and memory, all of which are important factors in making strategic decisions. Likewise, the power of positive emotions allows us to broaden our perspective, inspire greatness and bounce back from adversity.

3. Emotions can hijack wisdom.

Your emotions are connected to your memories and experiences and these connections make up your life narrative, shape your perceptions and influence your behavior. When integrated, this narrative leads to wisdom. On the other hand, emotions that seem to come out of nowhere — disconnected from reason and lurking below the waterline in our unconscious — lead to blunders, bias, feeling stuck and poor decision making.

Have you ever had a surprisingly strong and seemingly overblown emotional reaction to a situation? This has been referred to as the “amygdala hijack.” The amygdala is part of the brain system involved with processing emotions. These surprising emotions often pop up because you haven’t integrated old memories and experiences. Embracing a full range of emotions and having a coherent life narrative gives you choices and supports strategic decision making.

4. All entrepreneurs should be “Inside-Out”.

We all operate a bit like Riley. The inner and outer character conversations at the dinner table in the movie trailer, as well as the final credits, hint at the reality that we all experience in the business world. Keeping your emotions to yourself takes energy that could be used for other purposes. Hiding your fears and anxiety can amplify the effect.

On the other hand, learning how to name your feelings and understand your emotions has significant benefits for yourself and others. The question is how do you use “Inside-Out” smarts to be a more strategic and effective leader?

  • Legitimize emotions in yourself and others.
  • Track how you feel and what you think throughout the day (it helps to write this down).
  • Rely on your emotions as a source of good information.
  • Evaluate experiences that generate strong emotions and look at those experiences from multiple points of view.
  • Recognize that emotions are temporary — and that you can mine the value of the information without getting stuck in the feeling. One practice is simply noting and labeling what emotions you are experience. This practice is what psychologist Dr. Daniel Siegel calls “name it to tame it.”

Emotions offer a rich source of information about your inner and outer world. They fuel your motivation and passion and are the language that let others know that you understand and are “tuned in” to them. “Inside-Out” smart leaders legitimize and leverage emotions in themselves and others to be more effective entrepreneurs and lead a more fulfilling life.

Published in Entrepreneur