The Fire Drill and The Locker Room: Matching Emotional Intensity

Sometimes people can find themselves in a working environment that doesn’t quite “fit” with their natural style of communication, whether that style is a function of their personality, communication preferences / habits or even their demographics (age, gender, cultural background, etc.). Two common working environments that challenge people are the Fire Drill and the Locker Room. The Fire Drill is a place where too much needs to get done, too soon, too often… and for no good reason. The Locker Room is the place where there are too many men, in too much competition, making too many problems…. and not nearly enough women around. One of the keys to adapting to these environments is understanding how to manage emotional intensity as a separate, controllable element of communication.

SCENARIO A: Smart, successful and level-headed operations support manager, working in a fast-paced ever-shifting business (aka, a “Fire Drill” environment) gets dogged by his senior leader who thinks the operations manager isn’t taking the business’ needs seriously. On any given issue, the leader will pester the manager until the manager finally reaches a breaking point and gets upset. Once the leader sees that the previously calm manager is upset, the leader walks away, leaving the operations manager to fume unproductively. Operations guy eventually gets done what he needs to get done — as he usually does — but he wishes the job wasn’t so stressful, i.e., that his customer — the leader — didn’t make him feel so stressed out. SCENARIO B: Smart, successful and passionate female senior sales executive, working in a high energy, male-dominated business (aka, a “Locker Room” environment) gets subtle feedback that sometimes she acts too pushy, too assertive. This presents a double-standard quandary for the executive. She doesn’t want to parrot the typical “tough guy” behaviors of her male colleagues, nor does she want to back-pedal and become all “girlie” or start saying “sorry” a bunch of times. Getting angry or indignant doesn’t seem to be a very good option either. She has strong working relationships with her colleagues and clients and has adapted well to her environment, but this feedback tells her that she could still improve her rapport-building skills, for even better results. (Many variations on the Locker Room exist, wherever the following underlying pattern is found: Take one demographically homogeneous group conducting business in a way that is characteristic of their demographic, then add in someone from a very different demographic, then stir….) We could say that in Scenario A and in Scenario B that some kind of intervention is required in each environment, that those who create the “Fire Drill” and “Locker Room” conditions need to change the way they behave. Ok, maybe let’s call that a long-term effort. In the short term, let’s give responsibility for dealing with the situation to the operations manager in Scenario A, and to the senior sales executive in Scenario B. After all, we’d want them to focus on the things within their control… especially knowing that we ourselves have been in their shoes, in some form or another… and, as we’ll see, if they’re able to adapt better in the short term, they’ll have a better shot at positively influencing their environment in the long term.

Both Scenario A and Scenario B illustrate the importance and power of emotional intensity in communication. Emotional intensity is different than emotional content, even though the two are intertwined. By plucking or dampening the strings of emotional intensity, we change the overall emotional vibe. Let’s look again at Scenario A: Senior leader comes in very angry about something not working the way it “should.” Operations manager could respond with a lot of anger, but he knows that that would probably escalate the leader’s anger, so he doesn’t. What does he do? He responds with a whole lot of calm… and guess what? Yup, that tends to escalate the leader’s anger anyway. By separating emotional content from intensity, the operations manager could choose to respond with intense concern and urgency… even raising his voice to a similar level of the senior leader. If he did that, the manager would probably feel that operations manager “is taking him seriously.”  For the operations manager, the key isn’t to get angry back, but rather to mirror back the intensity of the anger, but using a different, complementary emotion. Doing that consistently will likely change the relationship dynamic over the long term, to something more like “partnering” instead of “confronting.” A similar notion applies to Scenario B with the senior sales executive. When her male counterparts give her the signal that they think she is being too assertive, she has the option of lowering the emotional intensity she’s displaying, even while maintaining the emotional content. The “content” may be her enthusiasm for the opportunity represented by an idea or  her opposition to a particular strategy, or something else. Whatever the “content” is, there’s no need for her to back off her opinion or downplay it… or apologize for it… just bring the energy level to a lower level, at the key moments. WIth the senior sales executive, there may need to be a more subtle “dance” going on, rather than just one or two “moves,” because (a) yes, this is sales, and (b) yes, it’s more complicated between men and women. However, done properly over time, she’d find herself exerting less effort to do this. As the senior sales executive becomes even more integrated with her peers, the group as a whole will shift its norms and expectations. Managing emotional intensity is not the same as managing emotions. It’s changing the degree to which you express an emotion, and that’s a very physical thing: it includes your tone of voice, your gestures, posture and position, you facial expressions, your choice of words… or even, the number of words. To be sure, this isn’t a complete “solution,” nor a one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with a mismatch between a person’s communication style and that of those around them. However, if you maintain a strong awareness of emotional intensity as a separate-but-linked element of emotion, then you’ll be in a better position to read and adapt to the emotions of others… and even coax them into a newdirection.


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Posted on October 19, 2011, in Business, Communication Skills, Leadership, Relationships and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I am not sure why, but since reading this, I have felt that the proposed solution for scenario A was clearer, more actionable, than for scenario B. How, precisely, does one show mellow enthusiasm? Or continue to stand up for an unpopular view, but gently?

    You acknowledge that “yes, it’s more complicated between men and women,” but it’s hard to see how that informs your analysis. I wonder whether this post sheds any light–or is it just more heat?

  2. Yes… Scenario B, The Locker Room, is a higher-order challenge than Scenario A, The Fire Drill, which has fewer dimensions to it.

    When I wrote this post, I was more comfortable giving a simple “prescription” that will likely work in many Fire Drill instances, based on my experience as a player in the field and as a coach.

    From the same perspective – player and coach — I wasn’t as comfortable dishing out a simple recommended approach for the Locker Room, because of the double-standards issues that I mentioned, as well as the nature of the senior executive sales role.

    Gender dynamics + evolving social norms + senior executive culture + competitive sales culture = a very challenging environment. I’ve been fortunate to meet people who do amazing work within those Locker Room (and various similar) environments. I also notice how they’re always looking for ways they can improve. Their communication strategies and tactics can’t be simple or formulaic if they are to get things done, closing big deals where the stress of time and competition runs high, while building stronger relationships. Working with them as a coach is what informs my analysis.

    It’s a good idea to revisit this post and build it out a bit more, to make it more actionable.

    For the example of showing enthusiasm with reduced energy (I like your phrase “mellow enthusiasm” …reminds me “ambient intimacy”) this isn’t anything too complex in and of itself: it’s usually just about expressing in words a strong belief while using a tone of voice and level of eye contact that is more subdued. A common example of this happens between communication styles, when a highly energized person consciously tones down their vocal modulation and projection so as to not intimidate someone who is at a lower energy level. Where it gets more complex is in the figuring out how to fluctuate the energy level, pacing and leading through the conversational “dance.”

    When I travelled in Japan it was fascinating to see how common it is within that culture to completely separate an emotion from its intensity of expression. People there are really tuned in to even the subtlest emotional display… and are expected to be aware and respond to it appropriately.

    Why does this matter? Why choose to treat emotional content as something separate from its physical expression of emotional intensity?

    It’s because as communicators, we have to take responsibility for how we’re understood. “The meaning of your communication is the message that was received,” goes the old saying.

    To use the example of standing up for an unpopular view “gently:” Sometimes it’s the strident voices that get ignored… or get labelled as annoying. Not adjusting one’s emotional intensity to suit one’s audience can, in some cases, marginalize one’s voice to the point where none of the argument’s merits are considered.

    This brings us to the article link you posted here, which dares the reader to accuse it of being hysterical, long-winded and hyperbolic. 🙂 (hmm, even by implying criticism I managed to prove it “right”… nicely done…) Definitely more heat, though it does shed light on the dynamics of people who use emotion as a tool to control others… something that is often a part of what we’re trying to adapt to within the Fire Drill and Locker Room. The devalidation of emotion (“Your unhappiness is ridiculous”) and emotional bullying (“If I’m not happy, nobody can be happy.”) – especially when dished out unpredictably — are two sides of the same coin, or perhaps, part of a mutually-reinforcing downward spiral.

    I’m optimistic that with physical practice and mental commitment, people can take responsibility for their response-ability and flourish… even (and especially) within challenging environments.

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