Emotional intelligence (EQ)

The leadership lesson in “Inside Out”

About a year ago when I saw the first teasers for Pixar’s Inside Out I rather impulsively declared it the film of the year for 2015. My faith and optimism was not misplaced: in its opening week it has already earned tremendous box office and critical acclaim, and deservedly so. What excited me so much about the film was not so much its artistic or commercial appeal as its potential to open up a public dialogue about our emotions and how they serve us (and often don’t). I’m pleased to see that some of the media coverage has indeed begun to do just that, such as this succinct piece on NPR.

Sure, we could quibble with the number of emotions depicted in the emotional command center, or which feelings are represented (the research isn’t entirely unanimous on these important questions). And as some coverage has indicated, the film’s treatment of the role of memory may not be entirely accurate, at least not according to the current psychological literature. Of course Inside Out is not a documentary. Its creators may not have set out to provide a lesson in leadership, but it does give us valuable insight into the interior life of its 11-year-old protagonist and, by extension, all of us. It reminds us that our feelings — including fear, sadness, anger and disgust — are really just protective mechanisms to help guide our decisions and actions. In a visually stunning, engaging (and occasionally tear-inducing) way, the movie illustrates how our emotions let us know when basic needs for things like safety, security, affection, etc., are being threatened in some way. And depending on to what extent we let which emotion rule our actions, the response may or may not be appropriate.

This is something we would do well to remember in our daily work lives. Our feelings are just a barometer of whether any given situation we face is good or bad for us — nothing more and nothing less. Feelings of joy or happiness mean everything feels OK; situation normal. Anything other than that indicates that a need isn’t being met, whether it’s a desire for connection, understanding, recognition or something else. And whether or not a threat is real (i.e., potentially harmful to our mental or physical health), our feelings should not be feared and certainly not ignored. They present vital information, just as your smoke detector warns you when something is smoldering or when your gas gauge signals you’re about to run out of fuel. So when we experience frustration, anger, disgust, or any other uncomfortable feeling, instead of numbing it with our many addictions or lashing out and looking for someone to blame, we should instead ask ourselves what need isn’t being met in that moment. When we forget this we soon find ourselves in conflict.

Even so, conflict isn’t necessarily a bad thing either; it too serves a vital purpose. Conflict is just a signal that something needs to change. It simply lets us know that we need to do something to restore our physical or emotional well-being. Whether we’re in need of validation, compassion, or a sense of stability, identifying the unmet need allows us to ask for what we need to rectify the situation. If we feel overburdened, we can ask for support. If we feel ignored, we can ask for a fair hearing. If we feel left out, we can ask to be included. Whether it’s a hug or to be copied on a memo, small remedies can often avert bigger disasters by meeting individual needs in a timely way. Simply figure out what needs to change in order to prevent or further escalate the conflict, and ask for it. (I know, easier said than done, right?)

I usually dread sequels but in the case of Inside Out I would be genuinely curious about a potential follow-up. As an 11-year-old, the character of Riley hasn’t yet learned to drink, take drugs, smoke, overeat, or indulge in any of the other unhealthy strategies that teens and adults employ in order to mask or avoid their feelings. It would be interesting to see how Pixar, in its abundant creativity, might deal with such scenarios although I admit it doesn’t sound like the most light and entertaining of possible directions for an animated feature. In the meantime I’m grateful for Inside Out and what it shows us about our amazing internal operating system.

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