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Managing Ourselves

More Thoughts About Effectively Managing Emotion

Learning to weather the daily ups and down of our work worlds

Two chairs looking out to a field on a sunny day

Back in 1991, right around the right time I began the intentional explorations of my own emotions, Sam Keen published a book called Fire in the Belly. I read it shortly after it came out, and all these years later, I’m still benefiting from what I learned. Three decades down the road, I’ve gone on to read nearly every one of the twelve or so books that Sam has written, heard him speak in person, and visited with him at his home outside Sonoma. This year Sam celebrates his 90th birthday. Fire in the Belly, for me, remains at the core of how Sam’s work speaks to me. The book is written “for men,” but I happily recommend it to humans of any gender who have interest in self-understanding, living better lives, and building better businesses (just as so many books written “for women” have helped me over the years). Looking over my well-marked copy of the book last week, I was reminded anew of how much I have learned—and applied to my life—from Sam’s work.

While Sam and I are very different people, we do have a fair bit in common. He writes about his childhood—a time, he shares, where he was “wondering about the limits of his mind; exploring his dark moods; writing poetry; reading books and playing with ideas; loving his parents; agonizing about war, poverty, injustice, torture; wanting to do something to make the world better.” I didn’t write poetry, but all the rest is true of my own upbringing as well. Through his books, Sam is one of the people who helped me understand just how similar most of all of our struggles actually are, often across generations, countries, and continents.

If emotions in the organizational ecosystem are akin to weather, most of us have spent the last twenty months living through a series of wildly stormy days and stressful nights. Hard times, rereading Fire in the Belly reminded me, are hardly unusual. As Sam said back in 1991:

Deep down, the tectonic plates that have supported the modern world are shifting. Revolutions are daily occurrences; the centers of power are moving. Ancient enemies are making common cause. Paradigms and worldviews are changing overnight. Yesterday’s certainties are today’s superstitions. Today is all chaos and creativity. As the sign down at the local Chevron station says: “If you aren’t harried, worried, and a little bit nuts you don’t understand what’s going on around here.” Nobody can predict the shape of tomorrow’s world.

What Sam was seeing in the world back then sure seems to still be true today; centers of power are shifting, and no one really knows what tomorrow will bring. Looking back over the decades, I can see that in all these years in my life as a human being, a leader, a line cook, and a host of other things, I have seen, struggled with, and tried to work through pretty much all sorts of “weather.” The effort to understand, honor, and manage my own emotions through those hard times has probably been one of the most challenging, and also most rewarding, “projects” I’ve ever engaged in. The work was anything but easy, but dealing with difficulties proved a much more positive way forward. As Hanif Abdurraqib writes, “The only way out is through.”

Being inexpert in matters of emotion as I am, my anxiety, fear of failure or being made fun of, feeling shame, or screwing up, run strong. But rather than let them stop me, I run with what psychologist Carl Rogers wrote: “Assume that your truth, as lived and spoken, will produce the best possible outcome. It’s an act of faith.” I’m going to take a few deep breaths and move gradually, imperfectly, forward, in the belief that together, we can learn how to make this work. In the process we can make our ability to manage through the inevitable swings in the “weather” of our organizations, slowly, but surely, more effective. As Daniel Goleman writes, “The most effective leaders are all alike in one crucial way: They all have a high degree of what has come to be known as emotional intelligence.”

What follows are five “action steps,” still in early draft form, to work on effective emotional awareness and self-management that I believe have helped me over the years. Perhaps, they’re the beginnings of a recipe we can teach that will help others here to do the same.

1. Get comfortable with your own emotions.

Effective emotional self-management is rarely listed in job descriptions, but it’s clearly a key component of the quality of our work. Emotional Intelligence is, like making espresso, baking, or customer service, a skill we can learn. Acknowledging its importance, and then supporting the teams with whom we work with training tools and active encouragement, can only help to make that a reality. 

Having learned from Sam Keen and so many others, it’s clear that we all have what Bradford Keeney called “a library of feelings.” Growing up with no great role models of Emotional Intelligence in action, uncomfortable with my own existence, and struggling with the uncertainty of the daily discomfort that any sort of meaningful emotional exploration brought up, I resisted doing this work for decades. Books like Fire in the Belly helped me a great deal, as did therapy. Eventually, I came to understand the amazing nature of my own emotional state; understanding that my feelings were mine alone, and not “caused by others”; learning to take note of “triggers,” and to stay connected and in the conversation even when anxiety arises.  It didn’t always make “logical sense,” but as scientist Albert Einstein said, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.”

Sam Keen writes that many of us were taught that our emotional states were to be “ignored or despised” because they “could not be brought under the control of the rational mind and the disciplined will.” This is essentially how I was raised. And I’m certainly not alone. It has taken years of journaling, reflection, conversation, therapy; thousands of shortfalls and moderately graceful (on good days) recoveries. Slowly but surely, I have gotten close to what Kandice Jones describes: “I realized that I am not my thoughts … I am the observer of my thoughts. That was big. I was no longer a slave to the thoughts that ran through my mind. This realization gave me back my power.”

In the process I learned to let my feelings be; to give them time and space to pass; to honor them without worrying about why they had come, and not get pushed off my chosen path forward by a bit of bad weather. Part of this is learning not to get completely caught up in waiting for our feelings to correlate with the right decision. Often, they don’t. In one of singer-songwriter Ethan Azarian’s videos, the producer asks him at the start of the film clip, “Are you ready?” Azarian laughs and answers, as I might likely do, “I’m never ready.” Then he smiles and starts playing anyway. I feel the same way each week, by the way, when I work on this enews. 

2. Make time to understand what our emotions might be telling us.

Learning to quickly understand what we’re feeling is a critical life and leadership skill, but acting immediately on those emotions, I’ve learned over the years, is often an error. Rushing out to buy a bunch of stock in companies that make raincoats because it’s been raining for three days wouldn’t be a wise move. Nor would it behoove me to start giving away all my winter clothes because of this week’s unseasonable warmth. Denial doesn’t work either (I’ve tried). Somewhere between those two extremes is an emotional space that, if I make the time to enter it regularly, gives me the chance to glean a good bit of wisdom. The work to understand what’s happening in my emotional state is often slow and almost always challenging, but learning to live with, and love, the “weather” of my inner world, has made my life wonderfully richer. From that place I have gained a good bit of understanding of what it takes to become a better leader, and to lead a better life. 

If we can teach this to others we work with, we can improve many people’s lives in the process. As Dr. Karla McLaren writes,

Emotions are central to your basic awareness and cognition; they tell you how you’re feeling and what’s going on inside and around you. Emotions provide you with the information and motivation you need in both your private life and your working life.

It’s a slow process to try to piece together what really happened in my life, and how it has impacted me over the years. It’s often as difficult to decipher what went down in my head two months ago as it can be to understand what my life was like when I was two. What we remember is only rarely exactly what happened. We do our best, but it’s become clear to me that we’re all telling ourselves, and each other, stories—only some elements of which actually occurred as we believe. Christopher Kelley, who started the amazing Sahel Sounds, put out a beautiful little pamphlet sharing folktales from the region. Our family stories, our organizational histories, and even our version of what happened last Wednesday, I’ve come to realize, are essentially folktales as well. As Kelley writes, “With each telling, stories shift and are misremembered or altered for a new audience. Tales become constructed from disparate histories. … The effect is two-fold: stories become unrealistic fantasies, and unrealistic fantasies edge their way toward reality, meeting somewhere in the middle.” The “emotional weather” we experience when something happens alters how we tell the story. And the way we share the story, will, in turn, change our “emotional weather,” and also that of our coworkers. 

How can we help this happen in the workplace? We are not here to be therapists for our peers, but we can encourage them to explore their inner landscape, and give positive reinforcement when they do. We can share our own stories, struggles, and learnings. And we can make it safe to have these kinds of conversations. As Sam Keen says, “Remembering our past is the way we move out of a present that seems to have no exit into a more open and hopeful future.” 

3. Embrace that in our ecosystems “emotions” and “facts” are always intertwined.

I was raised to believe, by my family and by the world around me, that emotions were generally something we were supposed to reserve for another place and another time. Like so many people I know, I was taught to look past what was going on in my head and my heart and say I was “fine,” taught to say things “didn’t hurt,” and taught to “tough it out.” This is still true today. It isn’t just men; in a recent interview, Olympic skateboarder Alana Smith talked about “growing up in a household [with] such a lack of emotional availability.” It can be even worse when we get to work. Many of us in business and in life get taught to value, as Sam Keen says, “reason, willpower, planning, discipline, and control.” This dichotomy is both inaccurate and unhelpful. Thanks to folks like Sam Keen, I came to see that feelings were not something to be ignored or brushed aside quickly in the face of “hard data.” Instead, I have come to embrace the reality that our feelings are also facts. And, at the same time, we have feelings about the facts with which we are presented. As James Baldwin once wrote, “Though we do not wholly believe it yet, the interior life is a real life, and the intangible dreams of people have a tangible effect on the world.”

Even for me, with all the socio-economic advantages I have at hand, this is not easy to do. On a mundane level, I regularly tell folks when I’m speaking that I’m a shy introvert who’s anxious in groups larger than three. It’s true; I’ve learned to fight through the fear and do it anyway. But when I tell folks, most (other than the other strongly shy introverts) roll their eyes in response. Some loudly insist, “No you’re not!” Learning to be sensitive to the feelings of others, to encourage them to share the fragility of their emotional states in constructive ways, and to support them in doing this work, can make a big difference over time. Ultimately this is about altering the commonly held social beliefs so that we can integrate the value of emotion into our regular work routines. As psychologist David Caruso explains, “Emotions are data, and emotions communicate meaning and intent … since emotions are a form of data or information, it’s important to accurately convey those to people and in a way that they will also accurately perceive.”

Learning to have communications where people can talk about emotions as fluently, consistently, and effectively as they do strategy or new product development can only make for healthier ecosystems. I don’t mean we should just do what our feelings tell us, but it’s important to honor what they’re telling us. There is very often wisdom within. My day was made the other morning when one of our managers, engaged in conversation with colleagues about some (very real and certainly understandable) frustrations that had happened on shift the previous day, suggested, “I think we just need to lead with empathy.” On a bigger scale, reflecting a bit, I was one of ten people in what could have been a very difficult meeting. Emotional storm clouds were on the horizon; emotions in advance of the meeting were running high, and there were many months of tension to unwind. And yet, the session went really well, in great part because of the emotional intelligence and fluency that folks showed in the meeting. Lots of I-statements, a good bit of vulnerability, and talking helpfully about hopes and fears all contributed to the quality of the conversation. As I shared with the group during our “appreciations” at the end of the meeting, it was one of the most inspiring things I’d been a part of in a long time. In hindsight, it’s clear that they had prepared well—taken time to get in touch with how they were feeling, to understand why they were anxious, and to share all that in constructive ways. When I was chatting on the phone about all this with my friend Molly Stevens, she reminded me of the outdoor enthusiast’s statement, “There’s no bad weather, only bad gear.”

4. When we’re freaking out, learn to step away.

I didn’t do scouts when I was kid, but Sam Keen did, and in Fire in the Belly he shares one of the things he learned from scouting—it’s good advice for all of us when that all-too-common feeling of confusion starts to set in:

First, don’t panic. Second, stop doing what you were doing. Third, sit down and calm yourself. Fourth, look for landmarks. Fifth, follow trails or streams that lead downhill or toward open space.

Some of the best things I’ve learned over the years can become (as they have for me) responses that we learn to practice under pressure:

  • – “Wow! That’s a great question. Let me learn more and get back to you!”
  • – “Let me think about the best time frame for that and write you back later today.”
  • – “I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed. Can I have a day to process all this?”
  • – “I’m not sure the best way forward. Let me share some of my feelings with you so we can figure it out together.”

We remain accountable for coming back with decisions, information, and action plans, but making space for self-reflection is almost always helpful. Paul’s wonderful saying, “When furious, get curious” is a marvelous mantra to live by. So too is one I learned from Louie Marr many decades ago: “You can get angry,” he told me, “But acting in anger will always get you in trouble.” 

5. Embrace meaningful emotional engagement for more effective leadership.

We are always more effective as leaders—and in our lives—when we connect meaningfully with others. This happens when we can make ourselves vulnerable, when we can share our hopes and fears, when we can access our anxiety, and when we can do it all effectively (as we teach folks at the Roadhouse, “right place, right time, right people”). My good friend and now-retired-partner from the Bakehouse, Frank Carollo, always would say with a smile, “People want to follow … someone.” The emphasis in his tone was clear: someone grounded, someone who was true to themselves, someone who believed in what they were doing, someone who cared for others. Someone who was emotionally engaged with themselves and empathically connected with their coworkers. As Carl Rogers writes, “It is a sparkling thing when I encounter realness in another person. … It is so obvious when a person is not hiding behind a facade but is speaking from deep within himself. When this happens, I leap to meet it. I want to encounter this real person.”

The people we connect with most meaningfully over time are more often than not those who are best able to manage and share their own emotions in effective ways. They are what Julia Cameron calls “believing mirrors”—people who are practicing Daniel Goleman’s emotional intelligence, offering our colleagues what Robin Wall Kimmerer called “medicine for broken land and empty hearts.” We can, I believe, be empathic and authentic, and help others effectively all the while maintaining good boundaries. We can be good listeners and leaders, and still continue to live our own lives well in the process. 

To some degree, we already teach and try to live bits and pieces of these five action steps here at Zingerman’s. They are woven into our existing classes on Mindful Self-Management and Courageous Conversations. They’re embedded in our teaching about personal energy. We tap into them, too, in our visioning work, and also when we end each of our meetings with “appreciations.” They are honored, as well, in our approach to humility, our Statement of Beliefs, and sixteen other places I haven’t yet realized. All that said, we have much more work to do to get better at this. Actively engaging in these five will help me, and us, improve the health of our organizational ecosystem going forward. 

None of what I’ve written here is going to immediately alter the “weather fronts” that move through our organizational ecosystems. Human beings have been going through emotional ups and downs for as long, I’m sure, as there have been human beings. These five steps though, if we do them regularly, can most certainly help us to weather what comes at us, and also to respond more effectively to what comes up from the inside. By doing this work, I believe, we can learn to move gently towards joy and compassion even when our initial emotional experiences start with shame or anger. While we will still need to address the challenges of climate change on the planet, learning to manage our emotions more caringly and effectively, I’m confident, can help us reduce the “overheating” that often happens in our heads. Personal change, I believe, can help to change the planet. As the Dalai Lama once said, “We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves.”

How can leaders who are already so busy find time to do this work? In Secret #37 on “Time Management,” I wrote about my belief that time is an investment, not necessarily in financial gain, but in anything that matters to us. If we care about our companies, our kids, our communities, our ecosystems, and ourselves, this work about the ways we respond to our emotional states is one of the best investments we can make. As wise financial experts always recommend, the key is to essentially ignore the day-to-day ups and downs of the market, but focus instead on the returns we get over the long haul. For me, and for our organization, it has already paid big dividends. And, I believe, there are still many years of benefit still to come. Weather patterns, I know, will continue to shift, fronts will still collide, there will be dark gloomy days and many others filled with bright blue skies and sun. These are, clearly, challenging times for all of us. And, still, I look forward to much more good learning in the future. As Sam Keen says, “I invite you to join me on the journey.” In the months and years to come, I’m sure we will travel a long way through all sorts of weather. But if we do this work, we can stay calm, kind, connected and collaborative as we go. 

For more on meaningful self-management, see Part 3

*** This post is an excerpt from Ari’s Top 5, a weekly newsletter from Ari himself. Sign up to receive Ari’s Top 5 here!

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