The most frequent question I’ve gotten in the last three months has been, what can I do? Children are being kept in cages. Open racism is going mainstream. Latent racism is being surfaced. Political polarization is eroding the ability of government to function. How can one person make a difference?
Macro action-oriented approaches such as protesting, voting, writing to their members of Congress, and donating to causes are all viable options.
Yet I sense they are not asking what they can do as citizens. It goes deeper. I think what they are asking me is more personal. They haven’t yet figured out how they could make a difference that is meaningful to them personally. They don’t know how to get from here to there. That is the subject of this week’s blog.
Think of this as what not to do, or what to stop doing.
Last week in a Zoom meeting, I called out two people. I had just heard some disappointing news and was tired. I blurted out that they hadn’t done something I’d been expecting.
Even as the words came out of my mouth, I knew what I was doing was unnecessary and possibly disheartening. But in that moment I said what was on my mind. My focus was on what I wanted to say, not about how it might be heard. From inside my head, I heard the irritation in my voice and wished it weren’t there.
As soon as I finished speaking, I moved into what is called self-justification. I was only telling the truth, that I had been expecting it to be done. True enough, I had not explicitly told them so, but they should have known. Shouldn’t they?
After the Zoom meeting, I collapsed on my couch and paid attention to how stressed I was feeling. Finally, slowly, I realized that part of my stress was that I had inadvertently and unnecessarily dumped on two people that I cared about. I felt guilty, and out of integrity with my concept of who I am.
I wonder if people realize the power they wield as they go about their day to day life. People have tremendous power in their sphere of influence. Anyone reading this has the capacity to make or break someone’s day. I don’t claim that I broke those two people’s day in that Zoom call. I sent an apology afterwards. But I caused unnecessary stress to others primarily because I had not contained my own. I violated my own sense of integrity in how to operate as a leader and a person. This doesn’t often happen to me. This time it did.
What happened to me is called depletion of willpower, which explains why some people who make a pledge to exercise daily can’t maintain it. Their willpower is depleted. Willpower is like a muscle: if you overexert it without allowing time and opportunity for recovery, it will simply give out.
But is this a big deal? you ask. It was just a meeting, you apologized, so move on.
Think of it in relation to the coronavirus. One person forgets her mask and runs into the store anyway. Her action can have consequences for 20 to 30 people. It was just one time. But that one time has consequences, so we choose to wear a mask.
Think of recycling. Most of us who recycle know that our small amount of garbage won’t kill the planet, but we recycle anyway because we know if enough of us monitor our ecological footprint, we contribute to the health of the planet. So we recycle.
Think of voting. I hear people say they don’t know if their one vote makes a difference. But those of us who vote know we are doing our part to influence the future of the country. So we vote and we encourage our friends to vote.
We have connected the dots between our personal actions and societal impact on Covid-19, recycling, and voting. Yet many of us consider our daily moods as belonging only to us and having minimal influence on others. Not so.
Emotional outbursts and irritated comments have footprints just as surely as plastic does and the virus does and voting does through a process known as emotional contagion. People “catch” other people’s emotions through a mostly unconscious process known as mimicry and synchrony of facial expressions and moods. We imitate one another; we synchronize our feelings and responses with those around us.
Have you ever been in a meeting where someone is in a bad mood and the whole meeting becomes sour and off-kilter? People leave that meeting and go into another one carrying their discontent with them, where they are then prone to infect the next group of people.
This is how negative organizational cultures start and are perpetuated. Just as a virus can make you sick, negative cultures can make people act in ways they otherwise might not. People in negative cultures are prone to self-justification (I had no choice, it doesn’t matter, they deserve it); scapegoating (it’s her fault, not mine); and prejudicial, exclusionary behaviors (no need to involve her, she doesn’t fit in with us anyway).
An emotional climate in an organization is built by the thoughts and actions of the people in that organization. If we don’t take care of our emotional well-being, we are more likely to produce the work climate, the environmental climate, or the community climate where it’s okay to dump on or scapegoat other people because we don’t feel good that day. People who are unhappy or who think it’s okay to discharge their negative emotions on other people will help create a negative emotional climate.
Angry dumping and scapegoating beget angry dumping and scapegoating. People then justify their behaviors rather than assume accountability for them.
This is how we become complicit with the negative emotional climate in our day-to-day lives and in this country. Something happens, our willpower gets depleted and we take it out on others, we move into self-justification claiming it wasn’t that bad or they deserved it. And right there, we are laying the groundwork for societal or community tolerance of exclusionary, insulting behavior.
These actions induce feelings of threat and threatened people are more likely to respond with prejudice and scapegoating.
People who perceive themselves to be under threat are more likely to feel prejudicial attitudes toward those who are different. Insecurity drives prejudice.
Yes, I am drawing an indirect line between our personal behavior and the social injustices we so earnestly wish to correct. Every time we lose control and dump on people, we are implicitly saying that it’s just fine to dump on people, to treat them as less than. The personal is the political.
Action Step 1: What can one person do? Start with self.
First and foremost, take care of your emotional health and your ability to positively affect those around you.
You are the instrument. Take care of your emotional sense of well-being and accept accountability for your impact on others. Spread joy. Avoid dumping your negative energy on others without their consent. Stay in integrity with your values so you avoid falling into the depletion of willpower, self-justification, exclusionary behavior trap.
You have a right to your feelings; I am not saying you shouldn’t feel what you feel. In fact, the more aware you are of your feelings, the less likely you are to leak them beyond your awareness. I’m saying monitor the impact of how you express your feelings so that you don’t contaminate your home, work, and community environments with negative energy.
Rely on trusted friends to sound off about things that are bothering you; that’s part of your bond as friends. Others deserve the best you can bring to the table, not the worst. In particular, your work colleagues who are simply trying to get some work done infinitely prefer a cheerful colleague over a dour one. And the research is clear on this – teams are more productive when their leaders demonstrate a positive presence.
When I went into the meeting, the bad news was that a person I had hoped to hire was sick. My thought was I can’t do it all without more help. I became emotionally depleted. Instead of running headlong to the next call, I could have taken a moment to regain my sense of balance. In hindsight, I know that I could have considered the resources available to me and gotten myself out of that mood. I could have moved into gratitude.
According to the research, there is a strong association between self-affirmation and mental health, and between mental health and prejudice. People who affirm their values and assets are more mentally healthy. People who feel good about themselves are less likely to dump, scapegoat, and hold prejudices against others.
I could have short-circuited those feelings of overwhelm by reflecting on the abundance of reasons I have to feel grateful. If I had gone into the meeting with feelings of gratitude and abundance rather than overwhelm and scarcity, I would have handled the situation much better.
Are you still saying this is a small thing? On one hand it is. On the other, it is the accumulation of small things that creates bigger things.
Are you saying you want to actually do something, yet taking care of your emotional health and affirming your values are not doing anything? Think again.
If we take care of our mental health and emotional well-being, we’re less likely to help produce the work climate, home climate, or the national climate where it’s okay to dump on or scapegoat other people because we don’t feel good that day.
Just as people vote for law and order judges without thinking through the societal impact, so people spew their negativity without thinking of the societal consequences. The high level of perceived threat and dismal mood of the country now fuels prejudicial attitudes.
If you want to make a difference in the world, begin by taking care of your emotional well-being so you have the wherewithal to positively influence others and infuse wherever you are with a climate of respect and inclusivity. The personal is the political.
But how do you build your emotional health? Self-affirmation is one tool. This society teaches us not to value ourselves. This is how we become complicit in putting down others. We are taught it’s not right to act as if we value ourselves, so we lose the ability to demonstrate to others how we value them.
Go against the norm by focusing on the positive things you believe in or have done and write them out. Brag on yourself to yourself. Tell yourself why you have value and how you have value. Allow yourself to feel good about yourself.
Action Step 2: Treat your colleagues well. Be the change you want to see
If I continued to do what I did at the Zoom meeting, no one would want to work with me. I wouldn’t want to work with me. Fortunately, that was a one-off deal.
Now here’s my challenge for you. Ask your coworkers if they enjoy working with you. Then ask them why or why not. Be prepared to listen. Be prepared to get your feelings hurt. But most importantly be prepared to learn and to make improvements based on what you learn.
One of the unfortunate side effects of being angry at the system or injustice is the tendency to turn on people you are working with. Watch for it. It not only hurts them, it hurts you. I lost energy and felt increasingly anxious after saying what I did. Imagining how they felt led me to feel badly too.
Strive to promote feelings of well-being and security among those around you. As these good feelings spread, there is less room for threat and anxiety to take hold and lay the foundation for prejudice.
Action Step 3: Trust yourself to find the right place to focus your energies
There is a lot to despair about. The good news is that people are being driven to action: Protests followed by racial dialogues opening up all over the country. Faith leaders mobilized. Youth mentorship programs springing up. Voters being registered. Corporations changing their practices to promote a more equitable society. People realizing that profit can’t be a company’s only goal.
Now back to the question of what should you do? How can you specifically make a difference?
If you are still struggling to find out where you fit, the answer is you might already know. What it takes is for you to actually decide where you want to put your time and energy and then do it with as much focus and enthusiasm as you can muster.
How do you know what’s right for you? The process is simple but not easy. If you learn how to clear your emotions and take care of your emotional health, you will discover you can discern a clear call/drive/instinct pulling you toward an action. If you aren’t emotionally clear, your rational mind will debate it, tell you it’s too big or that you can’t pull it off and you’re not ready.
But if you learn how to emotionally clear yourself and live in a spirit of gratitude, the impulse to do whatever it is that you feel deep inside will be undeniable. If it will serve the good, trust it, honor it. Move in that direction and see if doors open up for you to do that thing and go in that direction.
If you run into repeated obstacles, maybe that’s not the thing for you. Did you settle on what you thought was achievable rather than really going for what you felt in your heart was right for you? Listen to your inner self again to find out.
Once you feel the pull, go for it. If the doors open up, there’s your confirmation.
That’s what happened to me. I resisted this blog, and ultimately knew I was supposed to write it. Chances are you know what you feel is right for you. Trust it.
Leading Consciously concepts and skills mentioned in this blog post
 Bahns, A. J. (2017). "Threat as justification of prejudice." Group Processes & Intergroup Relations 20(1): 52-74.
 Jiang, J., H. M. Gu, et al. (2019). "The better I feel, the better I can do: The role of leaders' positive affective presence." International Journal of Hospitality Management 78: 251-260.
 We will talk about how to clear negative emotions, foster gratitude, and other tools in future blogs and our upcoming online course in the fall.
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