Hijacking the Hijackers
“Our unproven theory is that anxiety burns muscle, hardens arteries, and generates fat in the brain.” – Constance Grauds, The Energy Prescription.
I love it when clients amaze me. Sometimes they just get it. They enlighten themselves while implementing characteristics of non-anxious leadership. They preempt the anxiety-hijackers during crises, using calm and rational approaches to mitigate paralyzing fear and brain lock. In the process, they literally change their business.
Megan was about to talk to her employees at an important company meeting. She had just finished taking her leadership team through a strategic planning process. The exercise clarified the severe financial challenges which lay ahead for the company. Critical and uncomfortable decisions would have to be made to keep the company going. Megan planned to lay it all out in a company meeting the next day. She would give employees a complete view of the company’s financial situation. She would answer all questions directly and frankly. Then she would ask employees to work smarter, sacrifice more, forego raises and endure budget cuts. Implied, as well, would be the prospect of reducing headcount. As I helped her think about preparing her message, I encouraged her to become calm and non-anxious, then let the message develop in her mind. We role played.
The next day, she began her talk to the company by saying, “What I’m about to share with you will create three reactions in this room”. She described those reactions. One group will feel fear, anxiety, uncertainty and doubt. Another group will react with disinterest and indifference. A third group will feel energized, engaged and inspired. Members of the third group were mostly likely to join forces to find creative and successful solutions for the challenges ahead. Then she delivered her most important point, saying,, “To the first group, I suggest you find ways to manage your fears so you might become productive participants in the solutions required for the times ahead. To the second group, I suggest you consider opportunities to leave the company. To the third group, I expect to begin hearing your ideas to overcome our financial crisis within moments after this meeting ends.”
I secretly applauded Megan. She had pre-intervened to thwart the anxiety she knew would come in response to her difficult news. She had addressed the fear filled reactions her words would create by naming and addressing them. She had preempted the emotional sabotage which hijacks critical thinking at precisely the time when critical thinking is most required.
How a leader reacts to reactivity is his or her single most important leadership skill. We have learned from our studies of emotional triangles that relationships become strained – often to the breaking point – in response to, or a result of, rising tension in those relationships. The tension is fueled by emotional triggers which hijack rational behaviors and render the relationship both unsatisfying and counter productive. The concept of emotional triangles asserts that there is often too much anxiety between two people in order to form a stable relationship. In order to stabilize the relationship, most dyadic relationships seek a third person, group or entity to pull into the relationship and divert the building anxiety to the new party. Leaders often find themselves as the designated or chosen “third person”. The invitation they hear to join the dyadic relationship as a rescuer can be compelling and irresistible. It must be rejected.
Let’s go back to Megan. She already knew that her company’s employees were members of tension-filled relationships. (We all are!) Those relationships might have been with co-workers, their jobs, spouses, children, friends or a credit card company. The financial crisis in her company would deepen tensions in their relationships with the company and, by extension, Megan herself. Megan wisely expected multiple responses along the spectrum of maturity. She choose to preemptively reject efforts by others to draw her into their dyadic tension. She did this by speaking directly to the emotionally mature and invited them to employ their creativity and imagination to solve the financial crisis. To those who could only respond negatively or passively, Megan made clear her intention to remain detached. She had circumvented the paralysis which grips organizations when circumstances raise anxieties to red alert.
She had hijacked the hijackers.
Follow her lead. Make your story one which matures the system around you.
Peace and Courage,