Winning the Emotional WAR at Work

It’s the one question I get asked most often in my leadership management training sessions. And it’s fueled with bewilderment and exasperation. Here it is: why do people act the way they do?!? The short answer is emotional WAR. Here’s how you can predict the otherwise unpredictable behaviors of people.

The question reveals real and serious frustration business leaders, owners, entrepreneurs, and other professionals are experiencing. It is driven by their observations of what they consider misguided, irrational, or just plain nonsensical behaviors by otherwise rational, level-headed people.

The question indicates the significant need for people to strengthen and further develop their emotional intelligence. A lack of emotional intelligence is an underlying reason we experience so much frustration and misunderstanding, and the reason so much effort to motivate and inspire greater performance falls flat.

Answering the “Why”
The short answer to the “why” question is needs. To be concise, all behavior — everything you do, I do, or anyone else does — is an attempt to consciously or subconsciously satisfy a need we have. I call it the “cornerstone concept.” (I explain the Cornerstone Concept in chapter 7 of my book, Leaders Ought to Know.)

When we observe people acting in a rash, unpredictable manner, we can be reasonably sure they’re responding to an unmet need.

Life isn’t perfect. We are on top one day, and the next day we feel like we’re the central character in Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. This fact of life applies to everyone around us, too.

Knowing disappointment and difficulty can show up at any time should motivate us to prepare intellectually and emotionally in advance. Whether we are having a no good, very bad day, or it’s one of our team members, a customer, or a close personal connection — understanding the predictable responses gives us useful emotional intel to successfully respond to the adversity. Intuitively considering how people (ourselves included) behave in less than ideal circumstances, expands our ability to minimize or prevent knee-jerk reactions.

3 Ways People React
These three behaviors may indicate someone has an unmet need.

#1. Withdrawal
Withdrawal usually occurs in one of two ways: the most obvious way, and the most common way. The most obvious form of withdrawal is physical withdrawal. People quit and leave. Team members, co-workers — even customers — resign — they leave — because their needs aren’t being satisfied. They go looking somewhere else for the satisfaction they need.
The other form of withdrawal is emotional withdrawal. We quit — but stay. We “check out,” “disengage,” “go through the motions,” or “do just enough to get by.” Our passion is waning, and our performance is wanting. It’s not exactly the recipe for professionalism or success, is it?

#2. Aggression
When needs aren’t met, some people become aggressive in either their attitude, their behavior, or both. They may take exception to what is said and act increasingly confrontational. Or they may fall unusually quiet, pursuing a passive-aggressive approach. Otherwise mind-mannered people who become uncharacteristically aggressive may also be highly unpredictable. You can’t predict their next action because they don’t know it themselves.

#3. Rationalization
My favorite definition of “rationalize” is this: to rationalize is to tell ‘rational lies.’ Let’s break it down:

Rational: logical, reasonable, sensible, acceptable
Lies: fabrications, deceptions, falsehoods, untruths

When needs are unmet, we start telling ourselves logical, acceptable, reasonable untruths. Then we choose to believe these deceptions and act like they are true. Said a different way: people with unmet needs may create an alternate reality which seems comfortable enough to them.

Take one more look at those three predictable responses again. Do you see it? Interestingly, the acronym for responses to unmet needs is WAR.

This Means Emotional WAR
Withdrawal. Aggression. Rationalization.

When your needs, my needs, or anyone else’s needs aren’t satisfied, we’re in a battle — an emotional WAR. But we are not defenseless. Prepared in advance with a sharply honed emotional intelligence, we can more quickly recognize and rectify the behaviors which would otherwise sabotage our professional survival and success.

© Phillip Van Hooser  All rights reserved.


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