Beating Your Shadow by Understanding Your Emotions

If you want to lead, know what you’re doing with your energy
– Lao Tzu

Emotion is Information
– David Caruso and Peter Salovey

SASHET feelings chart
SASHET feelings chart

Emotional Intelligence and Leadership

Recent leadership and self-development books seem to be saying the same thing: who you are (thoughts, moods, emotions) is reflected in your actions and how you see the world. Accordingly, how we manage a project may be driven less by a set of tools and techniques than by who we are when we come to the work. This point was brought home to me this week when I was able to participate in a seminar on Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers

Managing your emotions to be more effective in your job starts with self-awareness: understanding what you are feeling. Checking in with yourself before you manage a challenging situation can be helpful in avoiding meltdowns as I mentioned in a previous post or amplifying project conflicts and issues.

During the seminar, one of the techniques we were given helped us dig deeper into what we were feeling. In the past, when I found myself in a challenging situation, if was aware of an emotion, I would have identified the emotion closest to my awareness, or the leading emotion

The leading emotion, the instructor explained, was like the part of an iceberg that appeared above the water line. Just like the majority of the iceberg’s mass is below the waterline, most of our emotions – the second and third level of emotions – are hidden by the leading emotion.

Leading Emotion: Picture an Iceberg

Drawing a picture of an iceberg depicting the three levels, he explained that once we’ve uncovered the third emotion we might find that it provided the most information and insight into what is driving us. This is my horrible recreation of the drawing.


A common scenario that could demonstrate the usefulness of this technique is when a release team approaches a major milestone. If a new issue is identified on the due date of the milestone, my leading emotion would be:

  1. Irritation, depending upon how much we’ve talked about issues that could put the milestone at risk (Anger – see the SASHET chart), followed closely by,
  2. Feeling anxious that the team might not make the milestone (Scared) and that my job might be at risk, followed by,
  3. Feeling down (Sad) because I did not meet my own expectations to complete the milestone and move closer to accomplishing the end-goal.

In my case, the third emotion identified would be the strongest influence on my actions. Without being aware of my emotions or mood coming into the meeting, my shadow side would have a strong tendency to come out as a Tenacious Implementer and try to drive to closure, rather than step back to look at the issue (Measured Connector) and discuss how to address it so that the team can agree that we are ready to pass the milestone.

I have found this technique useful in learning more about myself and my motivations. The other tools and techniques learned in the workshop made the time well spent. For those of you who are unconvinced about the power of emotions in shaping your effectiveness or for those interested in finding out more about Emotional Intelligence, I recommend Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers written by Anthony Mersino, PMP.


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