What Orange Hair Taught me About Emotional Literacy in Leadership

Last Friday was a seemingly normal day. I was looking forward to my afternoon hair appointment and the possibility of turning my grey hair back to brown.

No emotions were obvious to me when I arrived at the appointment. I guess I felt emotion-free.

The hairdresser started to show me some colour samples. I found the perfect brown, and we were almost ready to start.

Then we saw the reds.

When I said that I liked red, the hairdresser became excited. We found a colour that I thought looked a little too red. The hairdresser assured me that it would look more brown than it did in the sample. My hair is grey. I didn’t understand how red added to grey would look brown, however I didn’t question it.

I don’t know why I didn’t question it.

My hair is now orange.

Emotions are Always Present

It may be that I felt emotion-free when I first arrived at the hairdresser. However, our moods and emotions are always present, informing every action that we take.

Not noticing our emotions in a given moment doesn’t mean that we aren’t experiencing an emotion at that point in time. It simply means that we have not noticed our emotions in that given moment.

So, what emotion was present when I chose my new orange hair?

With the benefit of hindsight, I can now see that that when the hairdresser was initially talking to me about a brown hair colour, I wasn’t genuinely interested in brown. It felt old. Everyday. Boring. I had wanted something new. I had wanted to see what else might be available for me.

Flicking through “The Field Guide to Emotions” by Dan Newby & Curtis Watkins, it occurred to me that I had been experiencing the emotion of “adventurousness” when I was choosing my hair colour. According to Newby & Watkins, adventurousness tends to have us living in the story of wanting a new experience. It predisposes us to exploring our world. I hold an assessment that this was how I was feeling when I chose my orange hair colour. It was not obvious to me in the moment that I was in an emotion of adventurousness. However, I wanted adventure. I had explored my world. And orange hair colour.

This was my reminder that we are always in an emotional space. At any point in time, we are either operating from in the moment emotions, background moods, or a combination of both. And we don’t always notice these emotional spaces.

It doesn’t really matter to me that I ended up with orange hair. I kind of like it, and it definitely gave me something to talk about with my friends and colleagues. However, if I can choose orange hair without realising how my emotions are directing the actions that I take, what else can our emotions lead us to doing without us even realising?

The answer is: Everything.

When Leaders aren’t Aware of Their Emotions

Of particular interest to me when I was reflecting on my orange hair was “How might leaders be unwittingly informed by their emotions?” This felt quite important to me to understand. Someone who is responsible for leading people, reacting to situations without realising what emotions are informing them, could potentially create something way more significant and damaging than orange hair.

As an example of this, imagine for a moment a manager who may be unwittingly operating from arrogance. Referring again to Newby & Watson, this emotion tends to predispose us to treating others as inferior. When we are in this emotion, we tend to tell ourselves that we are more superior or more important than others. Like all emotions, arrogance can be useful at times, because it can help us to get what we want. However, it can also be quite detrimental to relationships, because it leads us to shutting down possibilities and closes us to relationships.

A leader operating from arrogance is potentially going to “know better”, a way of being that doesn’t support them in learning or seeking to understand. Their perception that they have superior knowledge, heightened value placed on their years of experience, and potential tendency to shut down learning from others could mean that they forge forward, refusing to take suggestions and recommendations from others, and damaging culture and productivity in an organisation without even realising.

What is interesting is that the leader may believe they are operating with the best of intentions. And, like me at the hairdresser, they may even think that they are feeling emotionless in the moment. Not being aware of their emotional space means that they won’t see the arrogance. This potentially results in unwittingly continuing to operate from arrogance, which is moving them forward, leading them to taking the predisposed action of holding others as inferior whilst holding themselves as superior.

This doesn’t make the leader a bad person. It simply means that they are unwittingly operating from their emotions; unknowingly closing themselves off to people and creating the leadership equivalent to orange hair while they move forward through daily life.

Paying Attention to our Emotions

Being able to notice and name our emotions is, I think, incredibly powerful. Not judging ourselves. Simply noticing. When we start to notice our emotions, we can choose how we use them.

A useful exercise to develop awareness of our emotions is to take a minute to think about how we are feeling. Ask the following questions:

  • What is happening in your moods and emotions?
    • What mood are you in?
    • What labels would you give to your emotions?
    • What is the emotion trying to tell you?
    • How would you like to use the emotion?
    • What other emotion or mood might be useful for you?

I initially used this practice in situations where it was obvious that I was feeling an emotion. For example, anxiety is an emotional space that I really notice in my body. So, I started a practice of pausing, noticing it, naming it and then understanding it. Eventually, this led to me noticing the presence of other emotions and I would pause, notice them, name them and understand them.

We are not going to notice every emotion in the moment. Sometimes, we will end up with orange hair. However, this is how we learn. Noticing our emotions after the event is still potentially more serving than not knowing them at all. I don’t think I had ever managed to name adventurousness before the great orange hair incident, so now I can be curious about it and understand it. Perhaps I can even use this learning next time I choose a hair colour!

Taking Action From our Emotions

Noticing our emotions doesn’t mean that we judge an emotion as bad or suppress it. Rather, it means that we notice why we are experiencing the emotion, what it is telling us, and where it is potentially likely to lead us, should we choose to do nothing with it.

From that point, we can make a choice about the action that we take. Actions don’t have to be what we would normally consider as physical. An action could be making a request, or having a conversation, or making a declaration, to name a few.

Bringing it all Together

We always experience emotions, even when we think that we are not. If we notice our emotions, we can use them to serve us.

Noticing our emotions doesn’t mean that we judge an emotion as bad or suppress it. Rather, it means that we notice why we are experiencing the emotion, what it is telling us, and where it is potentially likely to lead us, should we choose to do nothing with it.

From that point we can make a choice about the action that we take. Actions don’t have to be what we would normally consider as physical. An action could be making a request, or having a conversation, or making a declaration, to name a few.

When we don’t notice our emotions, there is potential for us to move through life, unwittingly creating as we go. When we do that, it is possible that we may end up with orange hair (or the equivalent) without us even understanding how that came to happen in the first place.

References
Newby, D. and Watkins, C., 2019. The Field Guide to Emotions: A Practical Orientation to 150 Essential Emotions. USA: Daniel Newby.

Other Reading
Duncombe, D., 2020. What is Emotional Literacy? – Leading and Being. [online] Leadingandbeing.com. Available at: <https://leadingandbeing.com/2020/01/25/what-is-emotional-literacy/; [Accessed 13 Feb. 2020].

Let me know your thoughts!

%d bloggers like this: