Emotions: Validation or Liberation

The posts over the past few days that focus on behavioral economics prodded me to begin to think about how emotions actually function in a more practical sense in how we work, live and even lead organizations.

I know in my own experience, my emotions for the vast majority of my first 50 years of life were never released, were kept in check, and only paraded out in the most secure settings. An experience with my oldest son watching the series Band of Brothers changed it for me forever.

We were watching the last segment which is a documentary on the men in the unit portrayed in the mini-series where they talked about their experience fighting in the Battle of the Bulge.  They described the closeness, the camaraderie, the trust, the bond, the absolute confidence that their fellow soldiers had with one another, and how they never experienced this depth of friendship during the rest of their lives. As these men, of common birth, of no remarkable accomplishments after their war experience, spoke of their relationships with one another, I realized that they had experience what I had desired in my own relationships with people. As that revelation swept over me, I began to cry, no sob, uncontrollably.  Once, I got control of my emotions, I turn to my son and told him, "What these men have experienced is what we all long to experience. If during the course of your lifetime, you find relationships with others like these men have had, then consider yourself more than fortunate. You will have experienced the kind of friendship we all long for, and most never, ever experience."

Emotionally it was a turning point for me, and to a certain extent has allowed me the opportunity to grow as a person. How odd that we find that through our emotions we find progress. The question is what exactly does this mean?

As I've reflected on this over time, I've come to a few conclusions that may make some sense.

First, I really don't have a scientific basis for what I'm about to write, but I'll not let the idea succeed or fail on its own merits.  I believe that our emotions are connected to the right hemisphere of our brain, and that it is the seat of our ability to create. Pure emotion cannot create lasting good. Establishing a connection to the more analytical left hemisphere is how our best attempts at creativity find success. This is my own interpretation of the many things I've read and heard on brain science. It is my own take.  If we want to be effective as creative persons, then we must bring both sides of our brain's life together.

When I was in my twenties, I had the opportunity to spend time with a number of artists. I loved their creativity. I had a real identification with them, but didn't really know how that could work for me. I had no real artistic talent that I could identify. I had taken a number of art history courses in college because visual culture was interesting to me. But, the closest that I ever came to doing with I thought artists did was take photographs.

The banner picture above is one I took this summer in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. It is a several pictures stitched together to create an image that the camera could not produce with one shot, and is not really the picture you see if you stand at this spot in this side channel of the Snake River. There is an emotional connection to this place for our family. It is here just to the right side of the picture where our family has swam with horses, riding bareback through a deep pool where both horse and rider float, and we get wet, and experience a rare moment of real oneness with the horse.   

Through the release of the emotions of creativity, new openness and opportunities occur. We must look for them, seek them out, and take advantage of them for them to have any lasting meaning. But they are there none the less. For me the release has meant a greater level of sensitivity to the delicate situations occurring in my work with clients. It isn't simply formulaic analysis and standard set of recommendations. It is rather identifying the unique path that each person or organization must travel through a time of transition. It is where my creative work now occurs.

Second, I've observed that peoples' emotions also serve a validation purpose. In this sense, the emotions serve to defend against the intrusion of ideas and influences that might threaten those beliefs and practices that have come to provide security.  It is what connects to others, creates a social bond and provides a real sense of personal identity.

Throughout my life, I have encounter many, many angry people. Why are they angry? There any number of reasons. They feel threatened. They feel a loss of control. They are afraid. They feel misunderstood. They are embarrassed. They are confused.  Any number of reasons. They look to their emotions to validate their claim. The emotions become defensive.  We've all encountered these emotions in others, and may even feel them ourselves at times.

When we look to our emotions to validate rather than to liberate, we have closed a circle around our lives. We have determine (rationally?) that I no longer need to consider new ideas, new perspectives, new approaches. I know what I need to know, and any outside influence should be viewed as a threat.

If then, as I said earlier that the emotions are the seat of creativity, then what we have done by seeking only emotions that validate is that we have closed off our ability to create, to learn, to grow, and to make the transitions in life that are necessary for happiness and fulfillment. It means it is very difficult to venture across the narrow confines of our comfortable, secure, safe set of relationships in networks of relationships that much to us and we to them, but requires a greater level of personal security because the validation factor has changed. 

Why am I going to such lengths to describe emotions in this way?  I am because I believe that managing change or transition is as much an emotional process as it is a rational, analytical one. And if Danny Kahnemann and his cohort of behavioral economists are correct, then our emotions lead us, and are notTransition - Growth or Decline merely a response.

All transitions are emotional. If you take the image here as a guide, you'll see that at these transition points, we can either move up or go into a decline. From an emotional point of view, if we approach these transition points with resistance,looking for validation of how we have been functioning up to that point, then we'll continue to see a flattening of our performance or possible decline.

However, if we approach these transition points with openness to the opportunities that may lie ahead, our emotions will liberate our creative side to bring resources that would be constrained and confined otherwise. We will see that that what brought us to this level of success is not necessarily going to take us to the next level. Which means that we must change. We must stop doing some things and start doing new ones.

So, when you are in a meeting, and you are listening to some one who is angry, ask yourself this question. "What is this person telling me about what they love?" Why this question? Because I'm convinced that at the heart of our emotions is love. And the anger is telling us that this person feels that something they love is being threatened. If you want to move beyond the anger, then identify what it is that they love, and validate it, affirm it, and figure out someway to carry it through the transition with safety.

Do we have a choice in these matters? Can we liberate our emotions to greater creativity and impact?  I believe so. But it isn't an analytical process. Rather, it is an expressive one. Go put yourself in the position to be creative. Take a pottery course at the local community college. Join a Toastmasters group. Begin to mentor a underprivileged kid. Start writing a blog. Do something that is not primarily mental, but expresses your creativity in some way. As you do, you'll find greater confidence and insight into who you are. You'll discover aspects of your life that your emotions have kept hidden for a long time. 


Quick Takes: Taleb on the Crisis

If you've read me for a while, you'll know that I am a fan of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the former derivatives trader and author of Fooled By Randomness and The Black Swan.  He's written about the current financial crisis here and there is an excellent interview with him in Time. If you are not familiar with Taleb's worldview, start with the Time interview.

According to Taleb, black swans are ocurrences that are unforeseen yet happened. In the Time interview he points to the rise of the internet as one positive one, and the 9/11 attacks as another. At his website, Taleb has extracted a set of quotes from The Black Swan that describes one of the contributing factors to the global financial crisis that we are facing. Here's the quote.

Globalization creates interlocking fragility, while reducing volatility and giving the appearance of stability. In other words it creates devastating Black Swans. We have never lived before under the threat of a global collapse. Financial Institutions have been merging into a smaller number of very large banks. Almost all banks are interrelated. So the financial ecology is swelling into gigantic, incestuous, bureaucratic banks – when one fails, they all fall.  The increased concentration among banks seems to have the effect of making financial crises less likely, but when they happen they are more global in scale and hit us very hard. We have moved from a diversified ecology of small banks, with varied lending policies, to a more homogeneous framework of firms that all resemble one another. True, we now have fewer failures, but when they occur ….I shiver at the thought.

Banks hire dull people and train them to be even more dull. If they look conservative, it's only because their loans go bust on rare, very rare occasions. But (...)bankers are not conservative at all. They are just phenomenally skilled at self-deception by burying the possibility of a large, devastating loss under the rug.

The government-sponsored institution Fannie Mae, when I look at its risks, seems to be sitting on a barrel of dynamite, vulnerable to the slightest hiccup. But not to worry: their large staff of scientists deemed these events "unlikely".

There is no way to gauge the effectiveness of their lending activity by observing it over a day, a week, a month, or . . . even a century!

(...)  the real- estate collapse of the early 1990s in which the now defunct savings and loan industry required a taxpayer-funded bailout of more than half a trillion dollars. The Federal Reserve bank protected them at our expense: when "conservative" bankers make profits, they get the benefits; when they are hurt, we pay the costs.

Once again, recall the story of banks hiding explosive risks in their portfolios. It is not a good idea to trust corporations with matters such as rare events because the performance of these executives is not observable on a short-term basis, and they will game the system by showing good performance so they can get their yearly bonus. The Achilles’ heel of capitalism is that if you make corporations compete, it is sometimes the one that is most exposed to the negative Black Swan that will appear to be the most fit for survival.

As if we did not have enough problems, banks are now more vulnerable to the Black Swan and the ludic fallacy than ever before with “scientists” among their staff taking care of exposures. The giant firm J. P. Morgan put the entire world at risk by introducing in the nineties RiskMetrics, a phony method aiming at managing people’s risks, causing the generalized use of the ludic fallacy, and bringing Dr. Johns into power in place of the skeptical Fat Tonys. (A related method called “Value-at-Risk,” which relies on the quantitative measurement of risk, has been spreading.)

Please, don’t drive a school bus blindfolded.

Owing to [...] misunderstanding of the causal chains between policy and actions, we can easily trigger Black Swans thanks to aggressive ignorance—like a child playing with a chemistry kit.

My conclusion is that as a society we are practicing cognitive dissonance on a global scale. We are doing what Paul Simon penned his his classic '60s hit The Boxer, "People believe what they want to believe and disregard the rest."  People believe what they want to believe about the financial crisis, about presidential candidates, about whether whatever it is that they don't want to actually address in reality.

In my previous post on Michael Malone's rant about the decline of journalism, the same holds true there. The Black Swan of this election is not what we don't know about these candidates that will wreck havoc upon the country, but what we do know and what we choose to ignore.

The financial crisis we are in isn't a classic Black Swan. The signs were there for all to see if they only chose to do so. The problem isn't that we are not a smart people, but we are indifferent and ignorant of the consequenses of our opinions and choices. And no more amply seen in this year's presidential election.

Addendum: David Brooks, in today's NY Times, writes about Taleb and the growing influence of behavioral economists like Danny Kahneman, whom Taleb credits highly for his understanding of the perception of risk. It is an excellent look at what I'm calling cognitive dissonance. Brooks writes about Taleb.


His writing is idiosyncratic, but he does touch on many of the perceptual biases that distort our thinking: our tendency to see data that confirm our prejudices more vividly than data that contradict them; our tendency to overvalue recent events when anticipating future possibilities; our tendency to spin concurring facts into a single causal narrative; our tendency to applaud our own supposed skill in circumstances when we’ve actually benefited from dumb luck. And looking at the financial crisis, it is easy to see dozens of errors of perception. Traders misperceived the possibility of rare events. They got caught in social contagions and reinforced each other’s risk assessments. They failed to perceive how tightly linked global networks can transform small events into big disasters.

Edge.org, who published a Taleb piece linked to above, also has a lot of material on Kahneman. This is pretty heavy stuff, but ultimately worthwhile. The simple idea that emerges is that we are much less rational, as intelligent beings, than we want to think of ourselves being. In reality, we are emotional beings who use our rationality to rationalize our choices. Hence, the person who is either emotionally conflicted or immature, could well make really bad decisions by practicing a high level game of self-deception.

The best treatment of self-deception is the Arbinger Institute book, Leadership and Self-Deception.  I highly recommend this book. It will be a revelation to you about how we fool ourselves into self-justifying rationalization that is intended to help avoid accountability for our bad decisions. It is the very thing which I see played out in the news over the past few weeks. Everyone is rushing to fix blame on someone else. As a result, we get a bail out plan that has not worked, and a market that is continuing to lose value.  What this tells me is that the people (wisdom of crowds?) is not yet emotionally comfortable with what the federal government is doing.

The same self-delusion that leads to looking for scape goats in our relationships, is at work in how this financial mess gets cleared up, and how we are selecting a president. You may not like George Bush's performance as president, but that is no basis for deciding who the next president will be. They should be selected on their own terms. As I told some friends yesterday, it feels like the 1970's all over again, now as then, the self-deception is at the heart of our decision making processes is alive and well.

And be sure to watch this PBS NewsHour interview with Taleb and his mentor Benoit Mandelbrot.