Never cut a tree down in the wintertime. Never make a negative decision in the low time. Never make your most important decisions when you are in your worst moods. Wait. Be patient. The storm will pass. The spring will come. ~Robert H. Schuller
A barometer is a highly useful instrument to measure changes in atmospheric pressure, which is tightly correlated to changes in weather patterns. Although the invention of the barometer was really a collaborative effort over a period of years, with Galileo having his hand in the game, the discovery of the principle it is based on is conventionally attributed to Evangelista Torricelli, an Italian physicist and mathematician, around 1643. Today barometers are used on land, at sea and in airplanes as a key part of weather forecasting technology.
The interesting thing about the weather is that in some strange way it is closely correlated with our moods. Sunny weather tends to heighten our spirits; we are in a “sunny mood”. And dark damp weather puts a definite cloud on our feelings. Like the weather, our moods change over time; sometimes light and bright, sometimes dark and angry.
We understand, thanks to Torricelli, the physics and principles behind weather changes (shifts in atmospheric pressure). But what is behind our changing moods? Is there a principle that causes our moods to shift from high to low to high again? And what do moods and how we feel have to do with leadership effectiveness?
Moods and Effectiveness
We have all experienced times in high mood states (happiness, contentment, joy) when tasks, interactions with others and problem solving flows effortlessly. We are creative, solution oriented, have access to enormous insight and compassion, and things work out well with very little effort. For leaders, dealing with business problems from a high mood state takes less time and solutions are not difficult to find. Professional athletes call this the “flow state” or “being in the zone” when their normal reaction times are heightened and their reflexes sharper. Recent studies using brain imaging and biochemistry show that the “flow state” of mind is very different from the normal, and is indeed an enhanced state of mental activity and sensory awareness. A definite state of wellbeing.
On the other hand, for a leader in a low mood state (worried, angry, depressed, concerned) problems seem to multiply and other people somehow appear as obstacles rather than helpers. We often call this “grinding on a problem” and solutions tend to elude us. Many people feel anxiety and inadequate when in a low mood state. The world and relationships don’t seem to work well; life is difficult and problems are huge.
Outside-In or Inside-out?
The first principle of cognitive therapy is that all your moods are created by your ‘cognitions,’ or thoughts. A cognition refers to the way you look at things – your perceptions, mental attitudes, and beliefs. It includes the way you interpret things – what you say. about something or someone to yourself. ~David D. Burns
The majority of people believe that their moods are caused by external events. Get an A on a test, happy as a lark. Get a C- on a test and we feel upset and mildly depressed. Get a promotion, the world is a great place. Get passed over for a promotion and suddenly the world and other people become very annoying and our mood turns bitter and resentful.
This “Outside-In” view of personal feelings and thus effectiveness is the standard understanding by most people of how feelings are generated and how external events create certain behaviours.
It may be universally believed, but it is wrong.
We now know for a fact that moods (how we feel about ourselves, the world and others) are controlled from the Inside-Out, not the Outside-In. And it is our thinking, our thoughts, which we initiate either in response to an event or without any external stimulus, which shape our moods. Have you ever been in a bad mood without any external reason? Check your thinking. Ever suddenly just felt good about everyone and everything? Check your thinking.
Here is an illustrative example: Two women are walking home together after the theatre down a deserted city street. Suddenly a man lurches out of the alley right in front of them. One woman screams for help, shaking with the fear of being attacked by a mugger. The other woman says, “Are you hurt? Can we help you?” Same event, two different responses based on different thoughts. It’s not the external event that creates the feeling of fear or compassion, but your thoughts about the event.
And nobody controls your thoughts but you (thank goodness).
Therefore, the process of how moods and resulting behaviour really works is not only simple, but empowering as well. Our thoughts create feelings (mood state) which in turn drives our reaction (behaviour) to events and people. With thoughts of fear and concern we feel frightened and tend to react with aggression or defensiveness. With thoughts of compassion we feel empathy and react with acts of kindness. With thoughts of gratitude we see people and the world around us with optimism.
And now we get back to Torricelli and his barometer.
What if our moods (inner feelings) were a barometer of the quality of our thinking?
If so, then when in a low mood the quality of our thinking is probably contaminated with thoughts of fear, anxiety, concern, suspicion and mistrust. Have you ever made a decision in a low or bad mood that turned out to be a poor decision? In low mood states our decisions and behaviours are often poor and can do more harm than good. Have you ever said something to someone while you were in a bad mood that you wish later you hadn’t said?
In a higher mood state the quality of our thinking is much freer, more spontaneous, more open to insights and new ideas, less critical. Somehow the right words and appropriate decisions are clearer.
Your thoughts create your personal “psychological reality”. ~George Pransky
Change your thinking, change your behaviour
What is also enlightening about the way thoughts, feelings and behaviour are connected is that once we tend to relax our body and mind and let go of negative or fearful thoughts, the barometer of our moods tend to rise. We suddenly begin to feel better, often for no real reason at all. Studies have shown that body relaxation, often brought about through deep breathing or light forms of meditation, tends to substantially shift our thought patterns from tense and fearful to calm and wellbeing. Even a few deep breaths or a walk around the block helps change the barometer of our moods because our thinking has shifted. There is even a growing point of view among scientists and philosophers that human beings are hard-wired for higher mood states and it is nothing more than negative thought that causes us to lose that default state of natural wellbeing.
Moods and Meetings
There is a perfect application of this “Barometric” Principle of Thought and Moods in the business world. Staff meetings and senior team meetings. When the mood is low or people are worried, upset or angry, the meeting feels like a grind and the quality of the discussion is pretty uninspiring. Problems tend to get talked about, rather than solved. Some people don’t even participate they are so lost in low mood thinking.
A good leader will recognise the current mood of the meeting and either press on if the mood is light and creative, or take a break or change the topic if the mood is low and heavy. But by all means don’t continue to “work through the problem” when the mood in the room is low. It just doesn’t work. When a senior team understands the principle of mood and effectiveness, they can monitor the overall mood as well as take accountability for managing their own mood state. There is an excellent little book in this very same subject by Robert Kausen, We’ve Got to Start Meeting Like This.
Just as the barometer and the principles behind it have found useful applications in all sorts of situations to improve modern life, an understanding of the Principle of Thought can have a profound impact on personal and team effectiveness. And it should become one of the key principles used by leaders to guide their teams and organisations to improved performance and wellbeing.
(Note: More on the Principle of Thought and its implications for wellbeing and effectiveness can be found in the writings of Dr. George Pransky – The Renaissance of Psychology and the teachings of the late Sydney Banks.)
Over the next few weeks I will be presenting more insights and implications for business and leadership (and parenting as well) from the Principle of Thought.
Thanks for joining the dialogue.
John R Childress
Senior Advisor on Corporate Culture, Leadership and Strategy Execution
Author of LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid
PS: John also writes thriller novels