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April 2013: Emotional Allergies

After you read this blog, you might not be itching to take a walk in the woods.

Every year, 350,000 Americans discover that a casual forest stroll produces weeks of oozing skin rashes triggered by a certain toxic shrub.

But hold on – that poison ivy statistic is deceptive because it lacks context: no one knows how many Americans miss out on the exercise, reflection and perspective of woodland hikes because they fear infection from a pesky plant. Most nature-walkers don’t get poison ivy.

Organizational leaders don’t need to venture outside to spur allergic reactions. Instead, they develop emotional allergies – anxious anticipation of, and over-sensitivity to routine relationship challenges. Like plant allergies, the emotional sensitivities of leaders can set back progress and divert attention from more important matters.

I have commonly observed four hyper-reactions that dilute leadership effectiveness:

“Allergic to criticism”

No one enjoys criticism, but individual leaders vary in their capacity to handle it gracefully.

Beth Ann, a CFO at one of my client organizations, says she detects disapproval of her before the assumed critic even speaks. “I can tell by the way my boss or husband looks at me that they are not happy with something I’ve said or done,” she says. “As soon as I get the signal, I start to shut down, and my anger takes over.”

What does it take to respond to criticism with a curious shrug? How can perfectionism be moderated to the point where every critique would be received as simply a piece of data to ponder?

“Allergic to discomfort”

It’s captivating to watch smart, forthright leaders routinely fold under the weight of emotional discomfort. The most intriguing discomfort I notice in business heads is their shaky ability to tolerate the discomfort of others.

Lou, a CEO of a manufacturing business, makes tough decisions every day, but he loses composure when others struggle. “My assistant began to cry about something, and I got really flustered,” he says. “I fumbled around for tissues like an idiot, wishing I could just fix the problem. Then, I left the room.”

Lou’s sensitivity to discomfort has become a set-up for avoidance: one whiff of emotional struggle in a meeting or interaction, and on goes his emotional gas mask. Ready to defend against an imagined foe, Lou stops thinking and starts ducking issues. “He’s a moving target alright,” says one of Lou’s peers. “But I think it’s because he cares.” Maybe, but more likely, it’s because he is inexperienced at understanding and managing the heat in the emotional kitchen of close relationships. Choosing comfort over progress has become Lou’s not-so-secret hiding place.

“Allergic to thinking”

“Just tell me what to do – I don’t have time to think about it!”

“Get to the point!”

“This is getting frustrating – let’s try to keep this positive!”

Dr. Murray Bowen’s descriptions of low maturity emphasized individuals who are so flooded by feelings that they cannot think clearly. His exact words are worth noting:

“Low (maturity) people live in a feeling world in which they cannot distinguish feeling from fact. So much life energy goes into seeking love and approval or in attacking the other for not providing it that there is no energy for developing a self or for goal-directed activity. Major life decisions are based on what feels right.”

In an anxious society dominated by adrenaline fixes, knee-jerk reactions and polarized sound bytes, the slow ebbing of clear thinking has drained many institutions and businesses of insightful leaders. “Fast and smart” earn big rewards, while “thoughtful and neutral” yield dismissive admiration. Many of the habitats that support reflection – quiet spaces, natural settings and deeper relationships – have faded into disuse.

In any setting where excitement and avoidance trumps wisdom and courage, can the death of thinking be far off?

“Allergic to complexity”

Technically-oriented businesses like engineering, accounting, manufacturing and IT attract professionals who love to solve and fix. In their “cause-and-effect” mindset, there is a right way and a wrong way to solve many problems.

When those same individuals become leaders, they often encounter painful lessons about complexity: that people issues are not black-and-white, that informed speculation might bring more value than rigid formulas, and that, in facing tough problems, leadership questions trump simplistic answers.

The clearest-thinking leaders I know are suspicious of rigidity. They’re more interested in accuracy than bluster.

From such leaders I often hear the language of wisdom:

“Possibly, but I want to investigate.”

“I’m not sure.”

“It depends.”

“I need to think about this.”

“It’s too soon to tell.”

Poison Ivy and emotional contagion

Like with poison ivy reactions, the “rash” from emotional allergies is usually blamed on the impacting agent – the conflict, criticism, thinking or complexity – instead of the anxious response of the host.

Just as poison ivy ignites a range of reactions – from mild rashes to severe respiratory distress – emotional allergies cut across a spectrum – from mild lack of focus to full-blown relationship cut-off.

Two important differences separate the plant allergy from the emotional allergy:

First, it takes 15 minutes for the oil in poison ivy to attach to cell membranes and launch a rash reaction. That’s a luxury compared to the instantaneous infection of a culture by a leader’s emotional hyper-reaction.

Second, with the quick application of rubbing alcohol and anti-itch ointments, poison ivy can be controlled and eliminated in a few weeks.

Emotional allergies are prone to pop up anywhere people congregate, and can last for decades.

The treatment?

Calm, self-regulated leaders offer the best vaccine against the spread of emotional contagion in a family, a business or a societal institution.

8 Responses to “April 2013: Emotional Allergies”

  1. April 01, 2013 at 12:41 pm, Brian Krauss said:

Excellent article with depth, insight, wisdom. Nice to read such material and its specific application in a business/leadership context.

  1. April 01, 2013 at 1:33 pm, Bill Engels said:

Hi John, A great blog this month, it hit home here at my business as we are dealing with some of the “emotional allergies” as I write. I hope all is well in your world and keep up the good work! Best, Bill Hickory,NC.

  1. April 01, 2013 at 1:36 pm, Ed McGraw said:

Well said John, I personally found value in this post. Relish the discomfort as the actual & phenomenal walk through the woods is filled with the delight of the known and unknown.

  1. April 01, 2013 at 1:46 pm, john h. said:

John, Another great scratch – for four of my itches!! All the best, jh

  1. April 01, 2013 at 8:35 pm, Van Smith said:

Hi John,

I thought the article was relative to me because i sometimes become infected by the emotional viruses myself . And find self having to focus on TRUTH TO HEAL.

  1. April 02, 2013 at 2:25 pm, Vincent Randy said:

After reading this thought-provoking post, I came to the idea that emotions (which can be defined as a deep phenomenon rooted in evolution) can elicit a different kind of “itching” (within oneself, within others, in oneself in relation to others, in other in relation to oneself…) similar to poison ivy.

And, contrary to poison ivy, one does not even need to be in physical contact with others to be “infected” by emotional reactivity !

  1. April 03, 2013 at 11:03 pm, Rocco said:

John: I am going out to buy some Kleenex.

As per your usual you got me thinking about when I have been in these situations, that’s wy i nee dto go out now annd get some Kleenex.

hope all is well travel safe

  1. April 05, 2013 at 6:36 pm, Lorna Hecht-Zablow, MFT said:

What great use of the poison ivy analogy! My primary emotional reaction to reading this article was one of Envy-of John’s writing and thinking.

I hope readers recognize that the principles illustrated here apply to all people in all situations-anyone who wants to be a leader of him or herself.

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