Most of my thought pieces to date have focused on organizational and workplace related issues. A number of these have drawn positive feedback and I’ve been encouraged to continue sharing my thoughts, observations and expertise.

Interestingly, my most recent piece on “Workplace Burnout” produced the largest number of feedback responses to date. They ranged from “very insightful and helpful” to “you must be describing yourself”.

Due to the level of interest expressed in the workplace burnout article, I’ve decided to write a few thought pieces on psychological/behavioural issues primarily as they pertain to the workplace. By virtue of their very nature, however, these ought to be pertinent and useful regardless of the venue for which they are being considered (hence the title).

There are few in the workforce who have not as yet heard of the concept of “Emotional Intelligence” (EI). EI denotes, amongst other characteristics, the ability to recognize the impact which your behaviour has on others, awareness of how others impact you and the ability to modulate the expression of your feelings in a way which adds rather then subtracts from relationships and performance (both yours and others).

In my experience, however, simple awareness of the impact which one’s expression of thoughts, feelings and behaviours has on others and vice-versa, particularly such emotions/behaviour as anger, frustration, fault-finding, blame, accusation, and the like, is not sufficient to control the expression of these often self and other-defeating thoughts, feelings and behaviour.

The concept which I have coined, “intelligent emotions” rather then “emotional intelligence”, refers to the fact that most of our emotions, and behaviours connected to these emotions, are self-induced and completely under our control. Furthermore, it is our perceptions of events (represented by what we say to ourselves regarding these events—what has been referred to by Psychologists as “self-talk”) which determines whether our emotions are intelligent or, alternatively, irrational, i.e., disproportionate or out of whack with the situation we find ourselves in.

Let me illustrate by way of an example. If I’m driving down the street and another driver cuts me off, and I say to myself “that SOB”….or worse, how different will my resultant emotions be if I were to say to myself “thank G-d I wasn’t killed”. It’s the same situation, but how we choose to interpret the event, in the form of self-talk, has a direct bearing on our feelings and subsequent behaviour. In the SOB option, the offended driver now feels compelled to teach the other driver a lesson by cutting them off (think about the cab driver in Toronto last week who apparently intentionally drove into a cyclist who allegedly banged on his window for coming to close, and killed him). Alternatively, if I were the person who was glad to have survived being cut off I am now feeling relieved and stay as far away from that SOB as possible (joke).

The crucial point here is that whenever you:

Label someone (he/she is a jerk, irresponsible, inconsiderate….) as a result of some action they manifest, your emotions are automatically and instantly heightened, your flight-fight nervous system gets thrown into high gear and your own behaviour is off to the races and not under your control (usually resulting in equally offensive behaviour).

Now imagine that you have asked a direct report, a spouse, a friend, to do something for you and they have agreed. Low and behold, they either neglected to follow through, did so too late, only partially completed the task or didn’t complete the task to your level of satisfaction. It would certainly be natural to be disappointed, figure out how to repair the situation and then rationally (intelligently) discuss with the individual what happened and how to avoid a repeat in the future.

However, what if you found yourself saying to yourself something to the effect of :

“ how awful, terrible or catastrophic this situation is, that they can never count on and I will personally be judged by the actions and failures of this person.”

Inevitably, by virtue of engaging in these forms of thinking (self-talk) you will find yourself not only disappointed (a reasonable and intelligent emotion) but rather outraged, indignant, defeated….and so forth (unintelligent emotions). In other words:

When you awfulize and catastrophize about a disappointment or inconvenience, or judge the person based on a specific action, or generalize about the person based on a single occurrence, particularly when you haven’t yet bothered to find out the reason for this circumstance from their perspective , you not only loose control over your emotions (blaming, accusing, yelling, avoiding, etc) but you also trigger accusatory, judgmental and generalized insults in return, e.g., you never do such-and-such either or I can remember when such-and-such happened.

In summary, as I prefer to be brief (those of you who are interested in learning more about how our irrational thoughts are the basis for often exaggerated and undesirable emotions might want to refer to works by Albert Ellis, David Burns and other cognitive behaviourists), your emotions and behaviours are under the direct control of the way in which you chose to interpret events. When you appraise the event (self-talk) in rational/realistic terms, your resultant emotions are intelligent. Otherwise, when you engage in such forms of thinking as labeling, judging, generalizing, catastrophizing and so forth, your emotions will become grossly exaggerated and hence irrational.

Fortunately, we are all capable of both types of thinking. In fact, we are capable of both forms of thinking almost simultaneously. So the next time someone suggests that you take a deep breath and relax or better yet, do so on your own volition, why not also check out your thinking at the same time. Get control of your thinking and you’ll master your emotions and behaviours.

And, for those who believe that I’m writing about myself, indeed it’s as relevant to me as to anyone. But it’s also about you. Now, ask yourself, “did I just think irrationally and feel offended and angry” or “is this a fair statement and an approach to self-management worth considering”.

 

Gerry Pulvermacher, Ph.D. practices Industrial/Organizational Psychology.