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.
Posted on October 19, 2011, in Business, Communication Skills, Leadership, Relationships and tagged Business, efficiency, Emotion, employees, leadership, Organization, team. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.