How important are emotions in the full-engagement process? What role does emotion play in completing any important mission? To help our clients answer these questions, we put them through a simple test that even the toughest National Football League superstars typically fail. They are given the simple mission to follow a wilderness trail adjacent to our property for one mile, touch a white fence that crosses the path at the one-mile marker and return to the training center in under 18 minutes. For an elite athlete, running two miles in 18 minutes is hardly challenging. The test is administered in small groups of three to five people. Prior to the mission’s start, the runners are told to stay alert, as there are water moccasins and alligators in the area. Both can be dangerous and are sometimes on the running path because of a small canal that runs parallel to the trail. A stern reminder is again given to complete the mission—“touch the white fence and return in under 18 minutes.” A final warning is made seconds before starting: “Heads up! Pay attention to this. We have wild boars in Florida, and they are mean and aggressive. If you see a wild boar, take appropriate action, but complete the mission!”
Reluctantly, the runners begin the test. Approximately half a mile into the run, a staff member who is hidden in the brush makes the sound of a wild boar. The response of the runners is fully captured on video, and it is always the same—pure terror! They immediately turn around and sprint back to the training center in complete panic, screaming at the top of their lungs. When they arrive, we ask but one question, “Did you complete the mission?” The only explanation they offer for their failure is, “We heard something.” A completely different response is produced when we administer the same test to elite law enforcement or military units. They are taught that panic is never an acceptable response. They are trained to read and react appropriately. At the sound of the wild boar these individuals invariably stop, turn in the direction of the sound and assume a crouched, ready position. They quickly determine no wild boar is present, smile and proceed forward to complete the mission.
Two important conclusions can be drawn from the wild boar test. The first is that any mission, no matter how simple, can be derailed when the emotions of those involved are not properly aligned with the mission. Second, people can be emotionally trained to respond appropriately to almost any crisis or adversity. Dan Goleman, author of the best-selling book, “Emotional Intelligence,” would describe the athletes’ fear response as an “emotional hijacking.” The test situation caused the athletes’ rational brains (neocortex) to be completely bypassed, and primitive survival instincts took control. In that instant, the mission was doomed. As chief learning officers fully understand, emotions play a critical role in employee engagement, learning and leadership.
There are lots of “wild boar” situations in corporate life today. A dreaded merger or acquisition, a sudden decline in market share, terrorist threats, corporate scandals or an unexpected change in senior leadership can trigger similar but less dramatic emotional hijackings that disengage a workforce at the very moment when their collective talent and skill is needed most. When a workforce goes into survival mode, when primitive emotions such as anger and fear dominate the culture, talent and skill levels begin to freeze up. Decisions are made differently, and creativity and learning—the life support for innovation and growth—become seriously impaired.
CLOs understand that people perform best when they are driven by opportunity-based emotions. When a workforce can sustain feelings of challenge, opportunity, hope and adventure, in spite of the persistent threats from “wild boars,” engagement and productivity can remain high. Emotions are highly contagious. One of the greatest challenges facing CLOs is helping leaders understand the critical role emotions play in their leadership. Every story leaders tell, every memo, e-mail, voice mail, every communication and even their body language carry an emotional message. That message, however subtle, drives engagement, productivity and learning, or serves to derail them.
CLOs must use “wild boar” incidents to teach leaders how to read and react appropriately so the corporate mission can be completed.
Jim Loehr and Jack Groppel are co-founders of LGE Performance Systems. Both are pioneers in the field of performance science and have coached thousands of people in business, law enforcement, health care, education and sport. E-mail Jim and Jack at firstname.lastname@example.org.