Preserving Your Emotional Autonomy



“He liked to observe emotions; they were like red lanterns strung along the dark unknown of another’s personality, marking vulnerable points.” Ayn Rand


One of the most important things BB has taught me is the value of being emotionally autonomous at work. By that, I don’t mean distant or frigid or bloodless. I mean emotionally disinvested.

BB has a very pleasant disposition. He likes people and enjoys good conversation. He has a sense of humor and is happy to let a conversation drift where it wants to go. He is seldom critical, never rude, always interested in good ideas.

But in the way he deals with his employees, he’s emotionally uninvolved. In the right way. In the way Zen Buddhists talk about being unattached.

I never understood that idea when I was younger. To someone as passionate and ready to get into a brawl (over just about anything) as I was, the thought of getting rid of attachment seemed like getting rid of love.

If love isn’t attachment, I used to feel, what can it be?

I don’t feel that way anymore.

I now understand, for example (as most parents do), that when you love your children, you want them to achieve good things — but wanting that for them has nothing to do with being attached to whether or not it actually happens. Yes, it would be nice if all your good wishes for your children could be realized, but if they are not, you love your children just the same.

The same is true about loving your work. When you care about your career in a mature way, you can set your mind to achieving certain goals . . . but without being emotionally attached to the outcome. By desiring the goal itself but not caring if it is achieved, you give yourself the best chance of succeeding. Why? Because when things go awry, as they always do, you are not traumatized. You take the disappointment in stride, make the best adjustment you can, and move on.

And when you are done . . . whether the project has succeeded or failed . . . you still feel good about the effort you made.

This is not an easy ability to acquire — but it can be done. Not totally and not consistently, but enough to make a difference.

Being able to detach yourself emotionally from other people’s goals empowers you too. (And I don’t use the word “empower” lightly. In fact, I almost never use it at all — I find it so disagreeably trendy. But for this purpose, I’ll say it.) Care less about your employees’ conflicts, and you’ll empower yourself as a leader.

A good example of what I’m talking about is examined in a book titled — simply enough — “The 48 Laws of Power,” by Robert Greene. Most people, the author argues, “operate in a sea of emotional distress,” where issues arise, are reacted to, are responded to, and erupt in squabbles and conflicts.

This is a miserable situation for everyone concerned. Because if there’s one thing we know about misery . . . it’s that it wants company.

“Your self-control and autonomy will only bother and infuriate [such people],” Greene says. “They will try to draw you into the whirlpool, begging you to take sides in their endless battles or to make peace for them. If you succumb to their emotional entreaties, little by little, you will find your mind and time occupied by their problems.”

Do not allow this to happen to you.

You lose power and potential (not to mention precious time) when you get yourself into local conflicts. You may feel like a hero stepping in to save the day, but, by the time you’ve suffered through the bloodbath and have finally extricated yourself from the mess, you’ll wish you had never gotten involved in the first place.

I’m sure you’ve had this experience.

So the first rule about OPCs (other people’s conflicts) is this: Don’t get involved.

But be careful. You don’t want to appear distant or aloof. And you don’t want to give the false impression that you don’t want the people involved to negotiate a positive outcome. Telling people that you “don’t want to get involved” will only serve to distance you from them. This will result in a loss of power.

Greene advises executives to show interest in the problem and make outward gestures of support. But he cautions: “You must maintain your inner energy and sanity by keeping your emotions disengaged. No matter how hard people try to pull beyond the surface. Listen with a sympathetic look, even occasionally play the calmer — but inwardly keep both the friendly kinds and the perfidious (see “Word to the Wise,” below) Borgians at arm’s length.

“Slowness in picking up your weapons can be a weapon itself, especially if you let other people exhaust themselves fighting and then take advantage of their exhaustion. In ancient China, the kingdom of Chin once invaded the kingdom of Hsing. Prince Huan thought he should rush to Hsing’s defense, but his adviser counseled him to wait. ‘Hsing is not yet going to ruin,’ he said, ‘and Chin is not exhausted. If Chin is not exhausted, we cannot become very influential. Moreover, the merit of supporting a state in danger is not as great as the virtue of reviving a ruined one.’

“The adviser’s argument won the day and, as he had predicted, Huan later had the glory both of rescuing Hsing from the brink of destruction and then of conquering an exhausted Chin. He stayed out of the fighting until the forces engaged in it had worn each other down, at which point it was safe for him to intervene.'”

This is what holding back from the fray does for you: It gives you time to position yourself in a way that will allow you to have the advantage once one side starts to lose.

And that is exactly how BB plays it. And that’s why he can get so many important things done. He desires a good outcome. But he doesn’t attach himself emotionally to the struggle . . . or to the result.