Understanding the Emotional System

Every organization, every family, in fact, every network of relationships at any scale is composed of both a rational system and an emotional system, and these are constantly interacting with each other. The rational system is observable and is made up of objective information and data that can be measured, studied, manipulated, reengineered, rightsized, and so forth. The emotional system is the other half of the story, and we believe that it is an even bigger driver of performance and results.

Understanding the Emotional System We define the emotional system as the instinctive pattern of automatic actions, reactions, and interactions that shape the functioning of an individual, team, organization, or any network of relationships. Think of an emotional system as an invisible force field that becomes stronger and more firmly entrenched the longer those members work or live together. We refer to the emotional system as the “hidden chemistry” of organizations. But what are the elements that characterize that chemistry?

Chronic Anxiety
Murray Bowen gave a name to this energy—this life-force—that is constantly swirling beneath our conscious awareness: chronic anxiety. Our definition of chronic anxiety is “an abiding sense of unease about imagined or anticipated threats.” The key word here is “abiding,” never absent, because anxiety is, quite literally, essential for our survival. Chronic anxiety is like the air we breathe. It is around us and within us, and we depend on it for continued life, but we can never “see” it directly.

How is a leader supposed to monitor something (like chronic anxiety) that is invisible to the naked eye and beneath conscious awareness?” Consider the image of an iceberg. Breaking through the waterline is “Reactivity,” which we call the “public face of anxiety.” The resilient leader is one who has learned to watch for subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) signs of reactivity in her/himself—and in the organization s/he leads.

On the individual level, here are some signals of reactivity that can alert us that we are carrying an unhealthy level of anxiety: a racing mind, tension in neck and shoulders, a knot in the stomach, restless sleep or inability to sleep, or difficulty staying focused. There are myriad other ways that escalating chronic anxiety makes itself felt and known in every dimension of our lives. On the organizational level, there are similar signs of deficit or excess that can alert a leader to the need to raise urgency or dial down anxiety.

Recognizing reactivity and how it works, and being a more astute observer of the emotional system (in self, others, or an entire organization), like any other skill, can be developed over time and with practice. A guide, mentor, or coach can be helpful in pointing out what to look for, but ultimately, it is the leader’s commitment to and patience with the gradual nature of mastering this New Way of SEEING that are required to develop proficiency in this key leader- ship competency.

Getting On the Balcony
One of the most powerful practices we know of that can help us develop this skill is called “getting on the balcony” (an image popularized by Ronald Heifetz in his book Leadership on the Line). The image is that of a crowded ballroom full of dancers, with a balcony at one end. As you are dancing with your partner, you mentally put yourself up on the balcony and observe how you are interacting with him/her. But from the balcony, you can observe not only yourself but also how your partner and others in the room are dancing.

In the context of the Resilient Leadership model, to “get on the balcony” means to observe the emotional system by observing the flow of reactive, instinctual, automatic functioning—in yourself, in others, and in the system at large.

As you develop some level of proficiency in this skill, you will be able to observe with a more detached curiosity, which will immediately lower your reactivity and make you more thoughtful. A mind-set of curiosity always makes a person more thoughtful and, as a consequence, less reactive. As a practice that can help you manage your chronic anxiety more skillfully, getting on the balcony is as good as it gets.

Jim Moyer

Jim Moyer
To learn more about emotional and rational systems, contact Jim Moyer at jimm@resilientleadershipdevelopment.com.