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Emotional Olympics

Optimize Blog - June 22, 2012 - 0 comments

As we count down to another Olympic games we can start to think about watching those elite athletes lining up for their event – the culmination of many years of training, sacrifice and unwavering commitment to their goal.
This got us thinking here at Zeitgeist about the psychology of performing under pressure and specifically in our role as leaders.
Psychological rather than physical differences will often decide who takes gold in contests where in some cases they can be won or lost by mere hundredths of a second. As leaders we too face situations of pressure – sometimes intense and so the question is “can the psychological skills used by top sportspeople be used to prepare us for our moments of pressure?”
Sportspeople have long known the benefits of psychological preparation and plenty of research exists to demonstrate that these techniques are effective for increasing focus and sustaining performance in sporting situations. There are indications that the same techniques can help in other contexts – such as in the workplace.
Clearly elite competition is highly emotional. These athletes can go from the excitement of being watched by millions, to the fear that they might fail, to the joy of winning, within minutes. They also learn that controlling their emotions is critical. Nervous excitement might enhance focus, for example; but too much can turn to anxiety, which can cause the individual to ‘choke’.
The ability to regulate emotions has been shown to be important in areas of life from family and work relationships, to how we deal with risk. It is important therefore that we understand how to regulate emotion to improve our performance as leaders.
The ability to pause before reacting is a key component of emotional and social intelligence. When we are in the throes of an emotional hijack, our muscles start to tense up, our blood pressure rises and our brain starts to release adrenaline and other hormones.
So what to do? What techniques exist to keep our emotions properly in control? Our body gives us plenty of signals: a clenched jaw, increased heart rate, a tightening in the vocal cords, feeling flush in the face or other similar reactions. These are alarm bells that we should not tune out. They are our first opportunity to intervene and prevent the emotion from escalating.
Deep breathing delivers more oxygen to the brain and helps us to calm down so that we can focus our attention and think more clearly.
Take a moment to focus on what you are feeling, for example, telling yourself: “I am starting to get angry” or “I am feeling anxious.”
Reframe how you see the situation. Cognitive reframing or reappraisal is a conscious re-interpretation of a situation to shift our frame of reference to a more positive one. For example: “He is shooting down my idea to belittle me in front of my peers” could be viewed as “He is challenging me because this proposal impacts his bottom line.”
Become very intimate with your personal triggers so that you are not blindsided by your emotional reactions. For example, if one of your deep- seated values is punctuality and you are meeting with someone who is habitually 30 minutes late for meetings, this could be a trigger to cause you to lose your composure.
If you are a leader, it is important for you to recognize the signs of the onset of an emotional hijack in a constituent and to help him or her restore equilibrium. Make an effort to know the stressors and energizers for your people. Do your part in creating a good place to work by being a model of composure for your people. It is an admirable leadership trait.
Carl Jung said: “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” What we dislike in others is a crack in the door which allows us to catch a glimpse of who we are, of hidden fears and potential blind spots. The next time someone gets under your skin, do a forensic audit of the situation. Is it the person or the behavior that bothers you? Ask yourself what or who the behavior reminds you of. If you were to map your emotions with certain individuals, what patterns emerge? The answers may yield important information to help you become aware of your inner landscape and increase your emotional self-control.
There is no greater knowledge than the knowledge of oneself.

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