Who are you capable of being?

What do we mean when we say someone is being their best self?

We often hear people say things like “I did my best” or “I was awesome today!” to express their pleasure and pride. We also hear things like “I wasn’t on” or “I wasn’t myself today” to explain why they aren’t pleased with their actions. There’s a reputation issue here: people who aren’t satisfied with how something turned out don’t want to be known for it, or remembered by it. They want to be associated with successes, or what they consider successes, anyway, and they want to disassociate themselves from failure. Sometimes people try to deny any responsibility for failures. Instead they blame circumstances or other people. But there’s more to it than reputation.

Recently someone translating the book Primal Leadership asked me to explain what the authors meant by the words “best selves”, on page 197.

Primal Leadership is a book about emotional intelligence that looks at the impact of leaders’ emotion-handling skills on their business relationships. Here’s how the section containing these words reads:

“How can an organization transform itself from a place that discourages people’s best selves from making an appearance into a vibrant workplace where people feel energized and purposeful? That kind of change requires a great leap: from a thorough understanding of the reality to a profound engagement with people’s ideal visions–of both themselves as individuals and as part of an organization.” (pp. 197-198.)

I think the translator’s question is rather interesting: off the top of your head, what do you think it means — and how would you explain it to someone who doesn’t speak the same language as you? There are three things about it I find especially interesting.

The first is that each of us is aware of certain standards we set for ourselves, personally and professionally. We may or may not actually live up to our standards, and we may or may not apply our standards to other people. Our standards might include:

  • Being respectful to others;
  • Being accurate;
  • Being enthusiastic;
  • Being generous;
  • Being thrifty (not wasting money or other resources);
  • Being practical;
  • Being efficient;
  • Being useful;
  • Being a good decision maker; and
  • Being a quick learner.

To some extent our standards are imposed from outside – by parents, teachers, bosses, customers, or coworkers – but in the end we either internalize outside influences or reject them. We are influenced by outside standards, but the ultimate decision about applying these standards always lies within us individually. Otherwise all siblings, all fellow students, all fellow employees, etc., who have been influenced by the same expectations would share the same standards, and this is clearly not the case.

Of course, just because we have standards doesn’t mean we judge ourselves by whether we live up to them. Sometimes we simply don’t notice whether we meet our own standards. Sometimes we make excuses for our failures. And we all know somebody who talks about their standards often enough but regularly acts inconsistently. Advocates of both emotional intelligence and executive coaching stress that work performance and communication skills improve when people articulate their standards then compare their actions to their standards. When we discover inconsistencies between the two, we may change either our standards or our actions, or both.

So we all have a best self, although it may be unclear, even to ourselves, what to expect from that best self.

The second point that I want to touch upon is the way that our standards for our own conduct change depending upon the situations we are in, or more precisely, depending upon the role we play in a given situation. I find that the idea of “roles” is the simplest way to capture a snapshot of the different packages of standards we apply.

For example, when talking to an infant or a frail adult we try harder to be gentle and patient and don’t expect speed, precision, or consistency in response. By way of contrast, when we work opposite a doctor, a lawyer, or an accountant, we expect and push for higher levels of speed, accuracy, and consistency. When talking to our boss most of us will talk less, and more quietly, and listen more attentively, than we do when talking with a subordinate. When talking to someone we love we will be more indulgent, whereas when talking to someone at whom we are angry we will allow little leeway.

So how our “best self” behaves may change depending upon our role.

The third point I’d like to bring up involves what I call the homunculus perspective. The word homunculus means “little human.” and it has a long tradition. In mythology, philosophy, psychology, and pop culture, a homunculus refers to a splitting of one being into multiple parts, with a question sometimes arising about whether one part is in charge of the other.

When I refer to the homunculus perspective I am referring to our tendency to speak of ourselves as operators or executive decision-makers living within our own bodies.

Perhaps the clearest example of the homunculus perspective in action is when we have conversations with ourselves. “I was just telling myself the other day…” is one common expression, or “I was debating with myself about whether or not to have another helping,” or “I had to stop myself from doing something stupid.” Seems ordinary enough, right? Of course, the interesting question at this point is: if YOU were the one doing the telling, or debating, or stopping…then WHO was it that you were talking to, debating with, or stopping? It’s harmless to talk about ourselves this way, and it helps most of us to think through conflicting impulses within our thoughts by treating them as if they were spoken by different people. So I like to think of the homunculus perspective as simply a metaphor that explains our internal debates in a familiar way, like a debate between different people — although I imagine many of us also attribute this apparent debate to our consciences, super-egos, internalized parents, God, or other sources.

So by talking about our “best self” as if we were talking about a separate person we can use the homunculus perspective to examine our standards and our actions and make value judgments about ourselves.

In conclusion, I think when the authors of Primal Leadership wrote the words “best selves” they were using the homunculus perspective metaphor to emphasize the expectations people have for themselves when they pursue high standards of conduct.

For a little extra spin on this topic, I recommend that the emotional climate of each workplace be designed to evoke the kind of “best self” behavior wanted by a company’s leadership. If the emotional climate is designed properly, everybody can easily step into the role of the “best” person performing their particular function.

Being intentional about emotions at work

What Are Your Strategies For Leveraging Emotions In the Workplace?

Do you have strategies for getting the most out of emotions in your workplace–strategies for yourself, for the work force, for the leaders in your organization, for your customers?

While doing research for a workshop on doctors’ communication skills I came across an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (“JAMA”) about using acting techniques to improve customer relationships. The JAMA article cites an intriguing look at the strategic use of emotions in the airline industry in a book called The Managed Heart, Commercialization of Human Feeling, written in 1983 by Arlie Russell Hochschild. Inspired in part by what I found in this book, I’ve selected eight ideas about the pivotal role of emotions in business that I want to share.

Point 1. Part of what customers pay businesses for, and part of what businesses pay their employees for, is a display of caring alongside the product or service being delivered. In particular, customers expect to experience a feeling that their well-being is valued by the company. As a bonus customers appreciate feeling personally liked by the company’s employees. If you are a business and want to give this sort of emotional satisfaction to your customers, the best way, and perhaps the only practical way, is to recruit, train, and lead employees so that they genuinely care about and even like your customers.

Point 2. Every emotion we experience is really a complex signal (like a command) to both our minds and bodies that triggers pre-wired responses according to our circumstances. Emotions prepare us for decisions and actions–and in hindsight this preparation is sometimes appropriate, sometimes inappropriate.

For example, a threat elicits the emotion fear, which prepares both our mind and our body for fight or flight by raising our blood pressure and alertness and reducing our reaction time while cutting off creative thinking, or for that matter, all thinking except about avoiding the threat. If the threat is physical, this is appropriate. If the threat is your boss saying she didn’t like your report, the response is inappropriate — or at least not helpful.

Point 3. We can learn and unlearn automatic emotional responses to certain situations. Back to the fear reaction, if we discover over time and repeat experiences that what we first thought to be dangerous is not a likely danger–turbulence while flying in an airplane comes to mind–most of us can unlearn our fear response. This happens when we compare each new occurrence to past occurrences which did not result in harm. In other words, if we don’t want a particular emotional response, we can retrain ourselves by associating a different emotion with the situation that triggers the emotion we don’t want. We can also learn, or teach others, new emotional responses. For example, if someone has had repeated experiences of feeling relaxed and pampered in a particular coffee house their memory will involuntarily summon up and signal the same feelings of relaxation and satisfaction whenever they are exposed to that coffee house.

Point 4. Emotions also automatically shape our physical appearance in a way that communicates what is on our minds. For example, the physical appearance of someone who feels threatened or otherwise highly stressed can be alarming to others, triggering in them a mirrored appearance of threat and stress.

Point 5. Emotions wind up being factors in many if not all business decisions. But contrary to our culture’s common wisdom, by themselves emotions aren’t necessarily rational or irrational.

For example, if you are about to be run over by a truck, fear is both rational and helpful as adrenalin is automatically dumped into your blood supply, boosting your escape power, while an instant vision of physical injury assists you with what we might consider a perfectly rational decision to jump out of the way. But what would happen without emotion? In the absence of fear you would be less well prepared to take appropriately rapid action. What if you tried to make a completely rational decision? You might first weigh the costs and benefits of changing your position versus getting hit by the truck. After this analysis, if you decided to move, then you would begin considering the most efficient route to take to get out of the truck’s path, taking into account practical factors like how far it would take you off of your intended course. In this instance a strong emotional reaction led to a better, more rational course of action than an in-depth analysis could have provided.

Emotions have a similar importance in business decisions. For example, when making a hiring decision your feelings of trust and rapport (or the absence of these feelings) aren’t absolutely quantifiable, statistically valid, or strictly logical. Nevertheless, they are highly relevant factors to weigh as part of your hiring decision despite their “irrationality” because the social fit of the person you hire will be important to your team’s long term success.

Point 6. As Hochschild examines at some length in her book, both sincerity and authenticity are looked for in relationships. Sincerity is about telling the truth to others, authenticity is about telling the truth to one’s self. The absence of either can cause turbulent relationships.

One of the most important functions of a leader, a sales person, or a coach is helping someone else uncover the authentic convictions or “truths” that lie within themselves. In other words, effective business people must be able to help someone make decisions that are appealing on an emotional or “gut” level as well as on a numerical or rational level. Decisions are certainly easier to explain when a valid comparison can be made between options on the basis of numbers alone. And of course, there is no doubt that preparation, including rigorous planning processes and the development of specialized expertise, makes an important contribution to many complex business decisions. But what happens when numbers aren’t available, or don’t answer the question being asked? In the real world there are so many intangibles and unknowns that pure numerical comparisons are of little value, or even misleading, for many business decisions.

For this reason your ability to facilitate people’s gut-level decision processes is a critical business skill which may be as important or more important than your ability to make quantitative arguments.

Point 7. Just as the author predicted in her book over 20 years ago, I believe that a whole generation has been raised by parents whose success at work has depended in significant part on their emotional self-management skills in managerial, teamwork, and customer relationship capacities. As a consequence, almost everyone now in the work force was raised in an environment where they were expected to explain their feelings and the feelings of others as a reason for making decisions and as a rationale for requesting action from others. We are persuaded by, and expect others to use, feelings-based arguments. Thus it’s critical for successful leaders and customer relationship representatives to understand the feeling rules or emotional expectations of the people they work with, then communicate effectively about the relevant emotions. For those of you interested in such things, this correlates to the concept of “self-awareness” in Emotional Intelligence and other contemporary leadership models.

Point 8. When she wrote The Managed Heart in 1983, Hochschild was a sociology professor at U.C. Berkeley. Along with her impressive first hand research, which focused primarily on flight attendants, and her valuable analysis of applicable psychological theories, she expresses concern about Management using emotional strategies in ways that are mentally and spiritually detrimental to Labor. Her book has a bit of an activist tone, opening with a quote from Karl Marx, and applying what might be considered a feminist perspective at times.

I respect the author’s viewpoint and echo her desire for responsible, ethical relationships in the workplace. But I also find that nearly everyone these days — whether male or female, self-employed, earning an hourly wage, or taking home an executive salary — is convinced that their personal success in business will depend in large part on their ability to apply the right emotions when working with customers and co-workers. I would also argue that improving our ability to promote the feelings we choose in business can lead to more efficiency by decreasing disagreements and poor decisions stemming from emotions, and thus more civility, improving everyone’s quality of life.