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Thinking about Thinking

Thoughts on thinking about thinking from the Raising Thinkers Series


Filtering by Category: Executive Coaching

How to Survive An Emotionally Unintelligent Boss

Tremaine du Preez

My boss has the emotional intelligence of a wrecking ball. This was the opening line in a recent coaching conversation I had with Pat (not his real name, of course). Divisive, two-timing, self centred, political, insert your own adjective here, bosses and colleagues are very familiar to coaches. It's not a new topic.

Pat works in a pretty entrepreneurial environment where wrecking ball bosses are found in abundance. In fact, empathy is the quality that entrepreneurs* have been found to lack the most. Why would they need soft skills when their job is to solve problems, launch product and make money out of it all? I think you already know the answer. For a company to grow beyond the start up phase, its leaders must be able to make good decisions and keep their best people motivated and engaged. Lack of emotional intelligence affects both of these - especially the ability to make good decisions. More about that later.

Stop wishing for others to change

So what would I recommend to Pat? Firstly, you can't change another person, only yourself, so stop wishing and waiting for your boss or colleague to change. Unlike a marriage, your boss may not have enough invested in your relationship to want to change for you. She may not even know she needs to change. Secondly, she won't be your boss for ever, you can either focus on her shortcomings and spend your time complaining about them or work on improving yours.

Finally, (and this is the hardest one) can you see this unpleasant person as a gift on your career path? By working with someone with low EI you are able to feel the impact of it first hand and, perhaps, this will encourage you to turn inward and examine your own emotional intelligence towards your colleagues, friends and family. Without this difficult person in your life, you may never have done this and so not lived up to your own leadership potential. They truly are a gift, if only with hindsight.

Emotional intelligence consists of four domains as coined by Daniel Goleman, namely self awareness, self regulation, motivation, and social skill. Of course, the theory is easier than the practice but the benefits outweigh the effort many times. Let's look at the first two aspects of gaining greater emotional smarts.

Do you know yourself as well as you think?

Self awareness is the first and most influential aspect of EI: the few who are gifted with true self awareness have a realistic understanding of how what they feel affects what they do. They also understand which situations trigger certain emotional responses in themselves and others.

Has your boss ever claimed your idea as his own in a board meeting? How did that make you feel? How did you respond? Do you ever take time after a difficult meeting to think about your behaviour and responses in that meeting? What did you do well and what would you do differently if you could do it all over? As you spend time examining your responses to others you will notice a pattern. Certain things will continuously trigger more emotive responses from you than others. This is when your heart rate picks up, your jaw stiffens or palms get sweaty.

I can keep a lid on my emotions in a meeting but I have a pale complexion and when I feel unduly challenged my neck turns bright red and betrays me. Even though I can keep a poker face, my body still generates stress hormones when I feel threatened, belittled or undervalued (my emotional triggers). So I have had to work out a way to stifle my response to these triggers - or wear a neck scarf, which isn't always possible in sunny Singapore.

Are you always in control?

This is where self regulation comes in. Once you are able to recognise your emotional triggers the next step is to contain your physical response to them such as getting angry, disengaging or other more subtle changes in your body. The first step here is to resist responding instantly when in a difficult conversation.

In the bestseller, Crucial Conversations (McGraw Hill 2011), the authors explain the physiological complexity of a heated conversation. When we feel challenged, or even when someone simply disagrees with us, adrenaline pumps through our body and blood flows away from the brain to the limbs to meet our natural instinct to fight or flee. Leaving a half-starved brain to come up with a coherent argument with sensible facts, whilst processing the torrent of incoming information! This is why low EI affects our ability to make good decisions. You simply cannot evaluate an argument and say the right thing when your brain is in crisis mode - even if you look calm on the outside.

What's your filler phrase?

Take a breath, use a filler phrase that you can say in different situations such as that's an interesting point of view or I appreciate you sharing this with me. This will help you in several ways. It tells your brain that you are not under physical threat even though the hormones it generates are the same as it would if you were. It then gives your brain a few precious seconds to think about what has been said and how to respond. Us coaches call this increasing your stimulus response gap - and that's a good thing.

Take a tour of your self awareness over a week. On your way home from work review your day; where there any situations where you acted impulsively? What emotion was behind that? Did you get any criticism? How did you respond to it? Did you say yes to a request that you really should have said no to because you felt pressured into doing it or didn't give yourself time to think about it first? Do this exercise everyday this week and a mental map of your emotional drivers as well as your ability to self regulate will emerge. If, like Pat, your boss has low EI, take heart that he or she probably won't advance very much further up the corporate ladder than they already are.

* Harvard Business Review, April 1, 2013. The Skills Entrepreneurs Lack, by Bill J. Bonnstetter @ HBR.Org

Tremaine du Preez is the author of Think Smart, Work Smarter, and coach and lecturer in Critical Thinking based in Singapore. She blogs for the Huffington Post where this article first appeared and at Her next book Raising Thinkers - Preparing Your Child For The Journey Of a Lifetime, will be out in 2016.

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5 Reasons Not To Set Goals For 2015 - Set Processes Instead

Tremaine du Preez

Are you one of the millions of people around the globe who wants to lose weight in 2015? Get in shape, take a course, get organised, save money or spend more time with your kids?

In my coaching practice we no longer help clients to set goals. Why? Well let's start with new year's resolutions: only 8% (1) of people that set them actually achieve them. We're in the business of making real changes, an 8% success rate isn't going to cut it.  Of course recording them as SMART goals works if you have a coach, buddy or boss to report to regularly, but alone (and who can keep a coach on the payroll forever?) we slip back into old habits like ice-cream down a cone in July. But that's not the only reason we've stopped setting goals. Here are 5 reasons followed by some ideas that will help you achieve your dreams in 2015. 

1. Goals are a constant reminder of what you haven't achieved
My son would love to get his 'pen licence' at school so he can move from writing in pencil to pen. It's been his 'goal' all year. Every week when his name is not called out another little part of him gives up on this dream. It no longer encourages him to write neater and try harder but is a constant reminder that he isn't good enough.

2. Goals force you to live in the future
Goals come with the expectation that you will be happier, healthier or more successful when you have achieved them."When I lose weight, I'll have more friends, be able to love myself or be taken seriously by my colleagues." They give us a reason for not finding these qualities in ourselves right now. Qualities reserved for our future self exclusively.

3. Once you've set them they're hard to get rid off
If you haven't really progressed towards your goal once the initial motivation runs out it won't simply disappear, it will hang around and continue to generate negative feelings. 

Joanne is a successful executive who came to us for coaching. She felt 15kg's overweight and loved nothing about herself. She brought along meal plans, food diaries, weight charts and a heavy heart. We discussed how she would feel without her history of failing to shed 15kg's. How she would feel without having that goal at all? Failing to lose weight had become a part of what defined her - her story.

Read on to see how we changed that.

4. Giving up a goal is bad for your health
People who don't reach their goals tend to set lower, more achievable goals over time - a natural self-protection mechanism. But disappointing yourself even once takes its toll on your body too. Failure releases the stress hormone cortisol and raises your blood pressure, which is especially harmful if the goal is continuously on your mind. 

5. Goals can lead to false conclusions
A failed goal can be seen as proof that things can't change. 

There is a better way of achieving your objectives

Before I begin writing a new book. I go through days of paralysis when I'm unable to write anything because all I can think about is having to put down 80 000 intelligent words in the correct order in 6 short months. I drink too much coffee, my heart murmur shouts at me and I bite my nails as I sit and watch the earth turn and the hours drip by. Tick tock. Then I panic because my publisher is expecting more than the nothing I currently have. 

I only move forward when I remind myself that a book is a collection of chapters that consist of paragraphs. Paragraphs are just single sentences of words strung together between periods. Today I have to write a paragraph, not a book. One idea, not 50. 

Set Processes not goals
Our journey creates our destination and the actions that we take everyday create our future success. Instead of setting goals with our clients, we set processes. We agree on the small and detailed steps that they must take everyday in order to move forward in the right direction. We are aware of the final goal that they would like to achieve, but they have no power over that goal. They have power over what they do tomorrow and the next day and the day after that. That's what I'm interested in. That's worth talking about.

How Joanne changed her life
Joanne's previous weight loss plans had involved going to the gym, eating half of what was on her plate and giving up Friday drinks. Losing weight became associated with giving up the things that she enjoyed. So when she felt stressed or angry or tired she reverted straight back to eating what she shouldn't - and then felt guilty about it. 

So instead of focussing on losing weight, we focussed on the positive changes she could make everyday. Not changes where she would have to sacrifice anything but rather where she could add to her daily activities. To drink an extra glass of water between drinks on Friday night. Order a vegetable side dish and eat that before the main dish. Walk in the park on a Saturday morning. It wasn't long before Joanne stopped thinking about losing weight and focussed instead on being the caretaker of her body. She celebrated every successful week and corrected herself when she veered off track. Losing weight was no longer about shedding unwanted parts of herself but taking care of her future self, everyday. 

If you want to achieve something special on your next journey around the sun, then why not gift yourself a weekly activity chart instead of a list of goals. Now each daily activity becomes the goal. Then celebrate each small step that you achieve. Remember that today is the only thing you have control over, today is real, the future is a work in progress.

(1)  Source: University of Scranton. Journal of Clinical Psychology, Research Date: 1.1.2014

Tremaine du Preez is the author of Think Smart, Work Smarter, executive coach and lecturer in Critical Thinking based in Singapore. This blog series is from her upcoming book, Raising Thinkers - preparing your child for the journey of a lifetime. She also blogs at the Huffington Post