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Tuning In

November 1, 2023

Having the discipline to dedicate meaningful time to understand you and your team will set you out from the crowd and truly make the world your oyster. In this article our clinical psychiatrist Dr Charlie Tweed looks at why understanding your own emotions, as well as your teams, is so important for success

Do you have humility to understand yourself and your stress? I’m not talking about knowing that you’re ‘feeling bad’ or ‘feeling good’ today; I’m talking about real scrutiny of your deepest gut instinct and emotions, pleasant and unpleasant, to allow you to tune into the unconscious things they are telling you.

When I ask people this, most shrug their shoulders and say, “I’m ok… I think I’m good at understanding myself… I’m emotionally intelligent…” which usually suggests they aren’t well practiced in it. As humans, we are experts at avoiding emotions because we’ve learned not to feel them in certain circumstances due to societal norms. There is also a level of practicality to this; would a paramedic be able to help people if they went around crying all day at what they see? Would the accountant who dreams of becoming an artist perform at what they do if they didn’t ignore how bored they are? For what I do it’s crucial I tune into my gut instinct and emotional responses to try and work out what is going on unconsciously between me and another person. If I can work out what’s going on, then I can work out the things that will help them and the things that need to change. In psychological terms this is called understanding my ‘countertransference’, and I believe it can be helpful in a variety of settings, aiding me help teams and individuals to get better outcomes.

Alfred Adler, a lesser-known Psychology giant alongside Freud and Jung, said that ‘all problems are interpersonal relationship problems.’ Essentially, he suggests that all personal stress and mental conflict is related to social connection between human beings and the misunderstood perceptions of someone in relation to someone else. I believe this applies strongly with leaders and followers, particularly in business. To optimise a team and its leader, you need to understand and work on the interpersonal space between you which is mostly unconscious; most of our communication is not done through speaking. By definition if this space is unconscious, one must consciously attempt to understand it in order to avoid falling into the usual human pitfalls that harm effect and output of a group’s task, another psychological term called the principle of ‘Basic assumptions’.

Basic assumptions in groups was constructed by Wilfred Bion, a prominent Military Doctor and Psychoanalyst. A decorated tank commander during the First World War he then took up medical and Psychoanalytic training before being redrafted as a general medical officer in the Second World War, becoming a big name in the psychological treatment of veterans and inventor of group therapy. Bion spoke of the subtle unconscious dynamics and roles which play out in groups between leaders and followers, and how leaders and followers fail at their allotted tasks by falling into certain patterns. Groups, he suggests, allow certain assumptions to occur unconsciously as normal human responses to stressful tasks, in order to work together and protect themselves from outside forces, both perceived and real. As part of this process, leaders and followers can become scapegoats, be ostracised or worshiped without question, and tasks that are not important to the output of an organisation can become central as if the member’s lives depend on it. Examples today might be a committee meeting focusing on who is responsible for the water fountain being broken, rather than dealing with the fact that the company is struggling to take on new clients, or when the boss speaks it’s met with silence as if they are some sort of omnipotent being to be feared or worshiped, even when they could be wrong. It is near impossible to always see basic assumptions until they have already emerged, but it is in allowing them to continue that a leader and team fails, and seeing them is something that requires a great deal of humility. Tuning into your own stress and emotion good and bad can help you move forward from and break cycles that risk becoming entrenched, subtly fracturing teams, and ultimately costing you financially.

As Albert Einstein said, ‘the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results.’ We all know things that help reduce stress and we often know on some level what makes us stressed. I won’t patronise you here with anecdotes about proper sleep and nutrition and finding someone you can ‘chat to’. Proper stress management means you don’t sign up to token efforts or ignore stress, it means you are in touch with it headfirst with the crucial conscious choice of how you react to it. Examining stress based on a framework of how it has manifested in the past can be a start to see how it manifests in the present and future; impartially observing you and your team’s past stressors and relationship dynamics without judgment or criticism gives a unique ability to separate what’s your stress, what’s someone else’s stress and what’s the organisation’s stress.

Realistically, you are going to first need someone from outside the organisation to help you with this. There are many ways to help understand yourself- some choose coaching, therapy, consulting courses, or regular external supervision. Crucially it’s dedication of quality time that isn’t just paying ‘lip service’ that makes the difference. My advice would be to not wait for a bad day; by then it’s too late and you’re already stuck down the rabbit hole. Tuning into your emotions when the going is good is a great way to keep you, your team and your customers firing on all cylinders, fully prepared to make your bad days the most productive.

‘Discipline strengthens the mind against the corrosive influence of fear,’ Montgomery. Having the discipline to dedicate meaningful time to understand you and your team will set you out from the crowd and truly make the world your oyster. This is a whole new dataset that is sitting within you, you simply need to hone the skills to read and understand it.

Dr Charlie Tweed, Amicus Associate

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