Reaching inside an executive’s hard shell

The company that Fiona works for has a high performance management course onto which aspiring MDs are ‘invited’. They progress through a series of workshops that focus on the softer skills of leadership, typically lasting ten months, before being offered a role in a different part of the business as a deputy MD. It’s a well established programme and most of the current generation of MDs and above have ‘graduated’ through it. At key stages throughout, including on their assignment as a Deputy MD, the individuals have a coach working alongside them.

Fiona found the programme particularly challenging. The feedback that she received suggested that it was her own lack of empathy that was holding her back. She was angry at this, as she felt that people used her far too often as a sounding board for their emotional stuff, bringing issues to work that weren’t appropriate, expecting her to listen and solve their problems when it wasn’t part of her job to do that, and yet she always gave them time, tried to help, and allowed them a lot of ‘slack’ in which to sort themselves out.

Walking around the grounds of a hotel in Windsor that early summer afternoon, we discussed her anger and tried to identify other situations where ‘meta’ emotions might affect her. [Meta-emotions are essentially where we feel an emotional response to other people’s emotional state – so, for instance, you feeling fearful might make me feel sad.] In the course of the afternoon, we identified several instances where other people’s emotional states left Fiona with a sense of anger. It was, as if, her only response was anger. Even when her sister had announced that she was pregnant after many months of agonizing, Fiona felt anger.

We didn’t try to unravel the ‘why’ she felt this way. Instead, we agreed that she would keep a simple notebook in her briefcase, and when she felt angry at anything, she would make a note of the date and circumstances. I rather laboured the point because I was concerned that her enthusiasm to address this would wane after a few days. When we met for our first conversation after the workshop, Fiona pulled out her notebook almost with relish. It was full of incidents. We took a few of these and talked through them, in each case looking at how other people might have responded differently. Nothing complex; using the simple mnemonic – SID’s GAF (Sad, Interested, Disgusted, Glad, Angry, and Fearful). We wrote the mnemonic on the inside front cover of the note book and introduced the idea that Fiona would carry on exactly as before, but also ask herself the question each time… “On average, which emotion do I think other people might have in this situation?”

Pressure of work meant that we didn’t meet again for six weeks. When we did, Fiona dug into her bag and pulled out an email from the Group HR Director. I must admit I took it with a little trepidation. The message was pretty clear… “Since the MD programme workshop, six weeks ago, I (and Martyn [the CEO]) have witnessed a transformation in your relationships with staff and peers. We are absolutely delighted. I do not know when the next appropriate opportunity for a transfer to a Deputy MD role will happen, but I wanted you to know that it will do so very soon.”

Having finished reading, I looked up at her and saw that she was crying. After a couple of minutes, she calmed herself and explained that she couldn’t remember the last time she had cried. They were tears of sadness – brought on by the warmth she felt at being ‘seen through’ for the first time in a very long time – that someone, some people, really saw her, appreciated her, and wanted her to succeed.

A lot of people, especially in the world of work, feel that they have to build a hard protective shell around themselves, but for a few this is a form of protection that is far more deeply ingrained. Life is complex and we need a wider repertoire of responses and we need to be flexible in the ones that we use, but we don’t get that from a mnemonic, or a textbook, or even a training course, we get it by being interested in ourselves and our own emotions. What Fiona had done was to begin to develop a curiosity in her own emotions that allowed her to be curious about other people’s and it was this that had opened her up to a whole new way of relating.

She spent 12 months in her new role, leading a business expansion into SE Asia, before returning to the UK as VP Operations.

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