Many of you know I train dogs…and it is uncanny how often insights I gain from that world help me understand the world of executives. Here is today’s lesson: Both dogs and people have emotional brains that react under pressure and stress and impact performance. In an “optimal emotional state”, my dogs perform great. With just the right amount of challenge or pressure, they perform at their best. But when those levels of pressure depress or over-ignite the emotional brain, oh my! It gets ugly.
Case in point. I have a young dog with all the drive, intelligence, and talent I could ask for. She is two and is just starting to trial in agility. She performed wonderfully in training and in her first few trials. Lately, however, she has become something of a “hot mess” in the ring. She sometimes nails the course but often devolves into a frantic, barking maniac. She clearly has what it takes but both the stress of competition and the extra challenges and pressure that come with her advancement are taking a bit of a toll.
Sound familiar? Many executives with abundant talent, drive and intelligence also derail. And it isn’t because they lack the right stuff; it’s because their emotional brains are under-or over-whelmed.
With agility dogs, the derailment we see is varied. They may avoid the obstacles in front of them, run around the ring frantically, or suddenly freeze. They may bark or bite their handlers, or they may start sniffing the ground or scratching themselves. It all depends on the dog and it covers the gamut from flight to fight to freeze.
Again, sound familiar? Have you even observed an executive avoid providing a direct answer to a question? Or change the subject from an uncomfortable or unknown topic to one they know? Have they seemed snappish or cranky? Have you ever observed them running from place to place, frantically trying to get done all that needs to get done?
Yep, dogs and executives, both reacting in their individual ways to the “activity” in their emotional brains.
Getting Back on Track
So, what to do? My dog lacks self-awareness of her emotional state. She can’t explain to me what she is feeling or how I can help her. She simply reacts in her own unique way to what she sees, smells, and observes in her surroundings, including everything I am thinking, feeling, and doing as we work together.
To be honest, some executives appear to have as little self-awareness as my dog. They either choose to or are unable to understand or explain why they do what they do. They are reacting to what is around them every bit as much as my dog is – sometimes with great results and sometimes they, too, look like a hot mess.
My dog is unable to increase her self-awareness. As her coach, my job would be so much easier if she could. Luckily, executives can increase their self-awareness and brain research suggests that the quickest way to avoid total derailment IS to know and name exactly what is happening inside emotionally. This reduces the activity in the emotional brain and allows the intellectual side of the brain to kick into gear. I know that, as an executive, it is often inappropriate and/or uncomfortable to share your feelings to others in your organization. But if you are sometimes overwhelmed by all those meetings and tasks, indecisive about priorities, or finding yourself avoiding things you know you shouldn’t, that’s when an Executive Coach like me can help. You can share what is really happening and have a thought partner to THINK your way back to healthy, effective leadership.