Managing emotions to foster innovation 

Feelings are wonderful things. We’re glad we have them — can you imagine a world where feelings didn’t exist? It would be pretty bland. There are, however, feelings that we enjoy more, feelings that we enjoy less, and feelings that we don’t like at all. There are feelings that serve us in some situations but don’t serve us in others.

Emotional Innovation

Creating organizational innovation requires that we utilize and manage our feelings effectively. Groups that “get along” well do a better job of innovating. If we get along, we’re more likely to feel safe sharing wild ideas, taking risks, making difficult change, and failing at experiments. Certain emotional states can create long term dis-ease in a group, thereby keeping the group from feeling at ease enough with each other to manifest the behaviors of innovation teams. Anger, boredom, disengagement, fear: these emotions tend to keep us ill-at-ease where they are prevalent in the group. Connection, affection, curiosity, engagement, peacefulness, joy: these emotions create a group dynamic of “ease.” As in at ease with each other, and easy to create innovation.

Choosing Our Emotions

Here’s the radical concept: it is within our potential control to CHOOSE what feeling we’re going to have at any given time. No, this is not always an easy thing to achieve, and in fact, there are times when we don’t want to choose anything other than what we’re currently experiencing, but it is possible to choose. With intention, attention, and practice, you can get better at bringing forth the particular emotion that best serves you at any given time. The trick is to do this consciously — as a choice. Now wouldn’t that be nice? To actually be able to pick what you feel at any given time?

What’s an Emotion?

Important Note: It should be said before we begin that this discussion assumes normal brain function, which because of various dynamics is not the case for everyone. Odds are, that if you’re reading this, you’re normal enough for this to apply to you, even if your close friends wouldn’t describe you as “normal.”

First, we have to understand that it’s accurate to view emotions as “neurochemical events” that are spawned by the specific thoughts we are having at a particular point in time. A “neurochemical event” is the interaction of neurochemicals — brain chemistry — with the nerves in your brain and body. While it is possible to alter your neurochemistry with diet or drugs and thereby alter your thoughts, most of the time it is your thoughts that control or alter your neurochemistry. In other words, thought patterns cause changes in internal chemistry, which create physical sensations which we then interpret as feelings. These thought patterns are not always conscious, but they can be made so with practice. (Search this website for articles on “concentration” to learn how to make unconscious thoughts more conscious.)

So if you want to create, or avoid, a particular feeling, one path to get there is to deliberately choose what you’re thinking about. Some background: let’s spend a few moments exploring:

1. What happens when this “feeling thing” goes wrong

2. Understand that “feeling thing” for ourselves

3. Look at what we can do to make it go more the way we want it: The way of the innovative brain.


The Rutted Path of Emotions

The trick for avoiding emotions that we find unpleasant or unproductive is to notice the very early thoughts that are beginning the “thought walk” in the direction of that undesirable emotion. Full bore intense rage for instance, doesn’t develop instantaneously in normal folks, even though we’re all capable of it. It starts with thoughts which make us a little angry, which are retold in our heads, embellished, and extended. If we don’t interrupt this process in some way, we become progressively more and more angry, potentially progressing to the point of rage. Note that the more frequently we walk the “thought walk” of any particular emotion, the more our brain knows the path and the more rapidly we move along it. This is why some people seem to “fly off the handle” easily and rapidly. They’ve walked the well-worn thought path before and created a rut that their brain can now run blindfolded in the dark. There are also emotions that we like. The same process holds true with them as well. The more frequently you tell yourself the story that creates feelings of bonding and affection, for instance, the more rapidly your brain can walk itself down that thought path.

The more skilled you become at noticing and choosing the thought paths on which you walk, the more likely you will be to be able to choose the emotional state you experience at any given time.

Mastering the Domain of Emotions

If you choose to be unaware of your thinking, or insist on believing that your feelings are caused by external events (“He’s making me mad!”) rather than your mental reactions to those external events (“I’m allowing what he’s doing to make me mad!”), you will remain a victim of your emotions, rather than a master of them. You’ll have good days and bad days, but you won’t really be able to choose which. So be it. Much of the world will never choose to operate in any other way, so you’ll have a large peer group to fit in with. However… as a responsible member of my organization, it is my job to make sure I am telling myself the mental stories that conjure up the productive, innovation fostering emotions, and replace the stories that conjure up unproductive emotions with a reasonably believable story that creates a more effective emotional state (an effective affect, if you will).

Once Upon a Time

For example, if a colleague acts in a way that you find to be inappropriate, you could tell yourself what a jerk the person is, remind yourself over and over how inappropriate they are, and work yourself into a real fit of self-righteous anger. Or, you could tell yourself that you have a real opportunity to stretch your personal creativity in the service of understanding this person’s perspective. One story will generate anger, distance and disengagement with little or no chance for an innovative relationship. The second story will generate curiosity, engagement, and perhaps connection. A much greater (but not guaranteed) chance of an innovation-fostering relationship.

Now we’re not talking some naive silliness here that you should construe to mean that if a colleague behaves poorly around or toward you, you should just make up a false story that keeps you from being upset so that you pretend to never have a conflict. What we ARE saying is that in such a situation you still have choice in your story and the emotions you experience. Find one that serves you and could help you to better understand their behavior. The responsibility for which story you choose is yours alone. And since the story is what creates the emotion, how you feel is your choice as well.

Metabolizing Out of Control Emotions

So here’s where it all comes together. What happens if you overindulge in a particular mental story that is leads to a particular emotion is that you can end up energizing the neurochemistry of that particular emotion to such a degree that you can’t get out of that strong feeling. In this situation, only time and metabolism will bring you back to a somewhat more normal state of emotion for you.

Here’s an example of how it works with anger: you get yourself so worked up that nothing gets you to mellow out except the passage of time. As Kipling said “to fill the unforgiving moment with 60 seconds worth of distance run.” You know the scenario, you get ticked off at a loved one and take a walk, exercise, or sleep it off and only then after “calming down” can you view the situation with objectivity (and sometimes even a degree of embarrassment for your actions and words). The same thing happens when we “fall in love” and experience the all-encompassing, judgment-clouding emotion of that new love. You know, the time when you actually think that you’ve found the perfect mate with whom you’d never have any conflict. And no matter what anyone says, you know that this person has no faults, flaws, or weaknesses and they can do no wrong. Until reality sets in over time.

ZOC Good. ZUT Bad

We call this stage when we’re no longer in control of our emotions — this overindulgence — “ZUT: The Zone of Unclear Thought.” ZUT is the neurochemical point where you no can no longer choose your story to keep yourself emotionally “centered.” In other words, in ZUT, you’ve lost control. Without deliberate focus and work, we are vulnerable to traveling from the Zone of Control (ZOC) into ZUT, a place where we are at the mercy of our neurochemicals. And while falling in love can be pretty cool in the right circumstances, it isn’t always best to do that blindly. Same is true with anger: it’s not good to indulge yourself in the angry thought travel that leads you to a real rage.

It’s Your Responsibility

Which means that with this knowledge comes a significant obligation. The responsibility to stay in the ZOC to avoid the ZUT. It’s not a legitimate excuse to say, “I couldn’t help it, I was in ZUT.” What that means is that you weren’t doing the work to stay in ZOC. Truly a heady responsibility. And isn’t it interesting that we use the expression “Blindly in love” or “In a blind rage?” Let’s face it, it’s easy to get tripped up if you walk around with your eyes closed. And it can lead to a lot of zut, which is a French expression for… well, ask a French speaking friend what that means. And find out why it’s better to stay in ZOC than to step in ZUT.

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