The Einstein Emotions

What we address in this blog reflects an aspect of our point of view on promoting the development of early-career professionals by more effectively identifying and leveraging their diverse potentials to offer leadership, emergent leadership, at all levels of the organization. 

The Presenting Situation

I was recently talking to a bright thirty-something professional about her career and her hopes for advancement into leadership. It's something that I have done, often on a pro bono basis, for many others over the years. Perhaps I've done so because of my own life experience of swimming upstream, taking new directions, and yearning to actualize my creative-productive potential—and doing so even at points in my life when family responsibilities and financial costs would likely discourage many if not most from taking the risk. (More on what constitutes risk later.) 

But back to my client... She had already established herself in a "man's world" as a program manager in an aeronautical engineering company, a Department of Defense contractor. This being a sector of the economy characterized by traditional demographics, i.e., mostly white and male, more oriented to technical than relational matters, and more hierarchical than collaborative, she was proud of "breaking through." However, she was also becoming frustrated with not advancing as she had wished. She reported what I might describe as a double bind. Let me explain.

On the one hand, she had progressed largely by demonstrating that she had the intellectual and practical skills and abilities to generate results. In a world where technical and tactical execution was prized, this won her credibility as a highly competent individual contributor. Still, in an organization that embraced, at least implicitly, the masculine prototype of leadership, i.e., think manager, think male, her ways of getting things done through others did not seem to be noticed, appreciated, or validated.

Implicit Leadership Theory and Emergent Leadership

What we observe in this situation is not unusual in working environments in which this masculine prototype prevails. For those unfamiliar with the history of the think-manger-think-male model, it was introduced by Edgar Schein, the renowned organizational psychologist from MIT, in the 70's. Like many elements of organizational culture, Schein posited that this demographically-oriented mindset operated as an implicit theory of what good looks like in management and leadership.[1]

Its features favored certain gendered ways of thought, feeling, and action: Thought = means-end problem solving and rational-instrumental analysis; Feeling = aggressive-competitive emotions that drive achievement; and Action = structured organization of individual roles, managed hierarchically, with a tightly focused task-orientation. Ways of realizing outcomes that involved modes of thought, feeling, and action that fell outside this paradigm were likely to go unnoticed.

Given this paradigm of what good looks like, we would be more likely to recognize the heroic actions of the man (the formally appointed leader) who exemplified these characteristics in spades. If the results occurred in part through the less obvious and emergent acts of leadership of a young female professional whose approach to influence fell outside the prototype.... Well, you get the picture. She might easily go unnoticed.

  • Her ways of intuitively (thought) sensing that something was not working or didn't make sense might lead her to pause, reflect, and "problematize" the issue in order to make it visible for review and analysis.
  • Her recognition that key stakeholders were feeling uncertain and holding back expression of their concerns may cause her to pause action-oriented discussion, inquire about potential barriers or unseen risks.
  • And her awareness that at certain moments of implementation it makes sense to invite, encourage, and expect acts of leadership from others at all levels may guide her to share power more widely, less hierarchically.

So What's This Einstein Emotions Theme About?

When I speak of the Einstein Emotions, what I am referring to are the qualities of mind that promote optimization of our creative-productive capacities. And for those who have any familiarity with the man, Albert Einstein, you will rather quickly recognize that he would have struggled as much as my young female client under the suffocating oppression of the masculine model. This calls for some explanation and elaboration.

It has been said about Einstein that many of his breakthrough insights and advances arose from intuition rather than analysis. Yes, he was very bright and competent in the disciplines of math and science, but he was also equally intrigued by philosophy and other disciplines. He listened to and trusted his intuitive insights. He did not act impulsively on them but explored them, took them seriously.[2]

Some might be tempted to describe his contrarian ways as fierce determination and perseverance. I think if anything, such emotions were secondary to those calmer, quieter emotions that spawn curiosity, reflective exploration, and an attitude that allows the phenomena to speak for themselves. This more passive, yielding observation, and reflection broadened his perspective and disclosed novel possibilities rather than imposing a preconceived theoretical framework on the data of experience.[3]

But notice that it also requires arresting or suspending the active, agenic energies that so much typify the masculine prototype of leadership described earlier. There is an attitude of humility inherent in Einstein's approach. There is also a less obvious quality of confidence. He is secure enough in his senses of observation (focused on the external) and intuition (focused on the mental processing of his observations) to be attentive and let them reveal their meaning and practical implications.

Well, my young client was equally confident at one level in heeding what she was experiencing and processing as she observed and reflected upon the organizational work she was responsible for advancing. But she also knew that she was, like Einstein, an "odd duck" in this setting insofar as she was drawing upon less acknowledged capacities to see, process, interpret, and act on the unfolding action of program implementation.

What To Do

Her frustration was born of two causes. First, her management was not able to recognize her competencies (intellectual, emotional, practical) and how they indicated a distinctive potential to lead. Second, she had learned that these more feminine modalities of thought, feeling, and action were not "legitimate." This latter issue may not have always been consciously explicit for her, but it implicitly discouraged her from discussing an essential part of her identity and potential to lead.

I gave her feedback informed by our Potential to Lead model. We made explicit these sources of her frustration. She was challenged and responded positively to the need to affirm who she is—all of who she is! And based on this initial assessment-based consultation, she and I were able to meet with her supervisor and broach a discussion of the "hidden" potential that she has for leading in their organization. He himself observed that it was hidden only because he and others were not as practiced in noticing it, understanding it, and thereby valuing and encouraging its use.

The supervisor became an entry point to discussion of the broader issues with management:

  1. Their implicit model or theory of management systematically blinded them to the potential to lead that may be more natural and available to women and people from other cultures.
  2. By not recognizing and encouraging these alternative approaches to leadership and influence, they were missing a great deal of additional leadership potential at all levels.
  3. Working from this case of one, they were able to see a practical path forward on broader issues of diversity and inclusion, engagement, and building their pipeline of next-generation leaders.

Conclusion

Emotions condition thought. These emotions might be induced intentionally by creating a certain mood in the work environment. They might also be the natural expression of one's dispositional tendencies as a person. Or perhaps they are the result of a leader's deliberate approach to influence. In any case, they affect mindset, motivations, and action. Knowing this positions us to consider how our approach to leadership and organizational work affects the emotions and thought-action repertoires of others. 

What we know through our felt impressions (intuitive insights) and what we do with those data (dismiss or explore them) makes a difference. The traditional masculine model of management and leadership causes us to prize the apparent precision and technical discipline of the thought-action repertoires that fall within its rational-logical purview of instrumental action. But it does so at the cost of marginalizing other sources of insight that may alert us to unforeseen risks or opportunities.

Such unforeseen risks often announce themselves less explicitly and semantically in the form of felt concerns with a proposed course of action. They include the risk that we may move ahead on action without noticing the unexpressed inhibitions of stakeholders, which may impede timely, effective execution. And they include the risk that we may underestimate the need for sharing power and encouraging aligned acts of emergent leadership at all levels.

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Notes:

[1] Interestingly, recent meta-analytic research (2011) that examined over 50 separate studies has demonstrated that this bias in what leadership looks like is alive and well today. However, it is more likely to prevail in the traditionally male-dominated segments of our economy. An encouraging sign from this study was equally clear, i.e., there is a growing appreciation for the stereotypically feminine approaches to leadership that place more value on relationships, collaboration, open communications, etc.

[2] In this regard, Einstein was doing what psychologists have now learned to help others do under the rubric of a “broaden and build” model of positive emotions. The broadening effect consists in promoting attention to the way positive emotions associated with curiosity, interest, and exploration can broaden “thought-action” repertoires, i.e., that prompt reflective pause and allow time for reframing and perspective taking. This broadening effect facilitates the building of new and additional personal resources (intellectual, social, emotional, and practical).

[3] Positive emotions associated with curiosity, interest, and exploration create a sense of hope. However, they also expand the "thought-action" repertoire. Whereas negative emotions like anxiety, depression, fear, and rage are governed by the autonomic nervous system (think fight-flight reactions) and narrow the thought-action repertoire with reactive patterns of behavior, positive emotions actually widen this repertoire and free the person to consider the situation and which alternatives for action might be most prudent or fruitful. This liberating effect bolsters confidence and competence.