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The Change Manager's Guide to Emotions: Thomas Modly lost his job, will you?

Updated: May 29, 2021

The Change Manager's Guide to Emotions

change managers guide to emotions

Change initiatives bring about emotional responses that often harm stakeholder influence and interest. When this happens, Change Managers end up firefighting pockets of resistance and dealing with unintended adverse outcomes from what they believe to be a positive change initiative. Are you recognising and managing emotional reactions to change? Because, if not, it might just cost you your job.

Understanding emotions and feeling is vital for change managers and leaders. If you are interested in accelerating your change initiative's interest, influence, impact and results, you need to know what could be blocking the path to your goal. Feelings and emotions create the biggest distractions to the focus and drive that fuel high-performance change initiatives.

The question is, how tuned in are you to the feelings and emotions created by your change initiative?

As you will read later, if you don't understand or sense the triggers that allow you to anticipate and manage emotions, not only will your change initiative decelerate, you might lose your job, like Acting US Navy Secretary Thomas Modly. 

To start with, think about yourself; what do you do when you sense that emotions and feelings are slowing or blocking the path forward? I'm going to guess that you probably start by asking one of three questions, which we'll discuss later in the blog.

However, before you can explore those three questions, you need to consider the difference between emotions, feelings and moods because people treat them as the same thing when they aren't.   


Emotions, feelings and moods.

Emotions, feelings and moods different but intertwined. 

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Emotions = bodily reaction to a stimulus (an internal or external trigger that changes a person's state, preparing for freeze, flight or fight) + common to everyone.

Feeling = the labelling of a particular emotion by your brain + personal to you, governed by your beliefs, values, standards, behaviours, talent, attitudes, knowledge, experience and skills.

Mood = a collection of influencing factors, drawn from our physical state, mental state, and our environment; for example, think of the difference in moods you might have experienced when stuck indoors on a rainy day compared to being out in the sunshine with friends.


Want to overcome resistance to change? Then stop asking, "how are you feeling?"

Back to the three questions: I am willing to wager that in the last 14 days, you have either asked someone one of the following questions or someone has asked one of these questions of you.

  • How are you today?

  • Are you okay?

  • How are you feeling?

They are terrible questions that generally draw automatic, low energy, monosyllabic responses: fine, good, okay, yes. The problem then, are you curious enough, or do you care enough, to know more?

If you are sensing emotions or feelings that suggest someone is struggling with a challenge, and if you care enough, you need to ask a more insightful question, for example: what are you feeling right now? Now, try escaping with one of those automatic responses above. You can't. Instead, you find yourself engaging with the question.

However, once you ask a compelling question, such as "what are you feeling?", you need to put yourself in a position where you can make sense of the response. So, what can you expect?

For more information, read our article on overcoming resistance to change: I don't have time! Now, what do you do?


The basic emotions

Emotions are like primary colours. There are primary emotions, but they can mix to create more nuanced or complex emotions. You are aware of some, but emotions such as fear and the associated freeze-fight-flight response are part of your automatic programming; hardwiring that short circuits the distraction of rational thought to optimise your survival response to a perceived threat.

From children through to adults, basic emotions, such as joy and fear, are common to all of us. However, psychologists believe that as we experience more of life, influenced by concepts such as cultural expectations, the primary emotions fail to explain what we are experiencing. In such cases, we take the primary emotions and create more nuanced labels to describe the sensations we are experiencing, such as pride or contempt. Essentially, these complex emotions such as contempt become difficult to breakdown to their basic elements, so we give them labels to explain them to ourselves and others.

Plutchik Emotions Wheel (Wikicommons)
Plutchik's Emotions Wheel (Wikicommons)

Dr Robert Plutchik (1980) conducted seminal research in this area, where he proposes eight emotions, which he grouped into four pairs of opposites (joy-sadness, surprise-anticipation, trust-distrust, anger-fear). Plutchnik's emotions wheel creates a visual of the eight basic emotions and eight emotion mixes, each comprised of two primary emotions.

Plutnik's emotions wheel is a useful reference tool for understanding, for example, how an expression of anxiety related to apprehension around a meeting (anticipation stress) could lead to fear or terror, which is not unusual with people who suffer from social anxiety

We use Putnik's wheel when working with change managers and teams looking to accelerate their change initiatives' impact and results. The wheel helps change facilitators to identify what people are experiencing in a given moment. From there you can explore what it takes to lessen the intensity of a given emotion (e.g. anger) or what could happen if people fail to take action (e,g, the risk of anger turning to rage).


The body atlas that maps emotions

According to a landmark study by Finnish scientists in 2013, feelings are an expression of bodily sensations you experience when in various emotional states. In experiments involving 773 people, these scientists were able to map the bodily sensations associated with a given emotion.

"We often experience emotions directly in the body. When strolling through the park to meet with our sweetheart we walk lightly with our hearts pounding with excitement, whereas anxiety might tighten our muscles and make our hands sweat and tremble before an important job interview." (Nummenmaa et al., 2013, p. 1)

What makes this interesting is the way people respond to the question, what are you feeling right now? Where people talk about bodily sensations, they could be giving us discrete clues to their emotional state, which puts you in a better position to understand and help them.


Measuring emotions

Change initiatives can bring about extreme responses that present as anger. Anger is not always anger; sometimes, it is rage, and other times it is irritation. So, what can you do to understand the strength of emotional response at a given moment in time? More than this, what can you do to help people who are struggling to express the intensity of sensations they are experiencing?

A useful tool is Bradley & Lang's (1994) Self-Assessment Manikin. Bradley & Lang's approach powers our Insight manikin, which explores the sensations a person is experiencing at a given moment in time: pleasure-displeasure & state of arousal, low-high.

Change Management Emotions Insight Manikin
Change Management Emotions Insight Manikin

You can use the Insight Manikin to discover patterns influencing your life and associated their associated triggers. We use this as a one-on-one coaching tool. We teach change leaders and managers to use this process to improve engagement and involvement in their change initiatives. It's also handy when exploring underlying opportunities for improvement in dysfunctional teams.

As a change leader or manager, the insights you gain from exploring emotions are invaluable. In better understanding emotions, feelings and moods, you discover insights that move you out of the purple and into the blueApplied insights optimise your ability to influence engagement, productivity, wellbeing, creativity, and retention within your teams. These powerful insights also stimulate growth in areas of learning agility, emotional and social intelligence. 

So, what stops you from dropping "how do you feel", asking instead, "what do you feel right now?" because the difference in response might just save your job. 


Raging emotion and the resignation of Thomas Modly

COVID-19 is not yet the pandemic we know today, but it is causing serious concern on board the United States Nimitz Class aircraft carrier, Theodore Roosevelt. Captain Brett Crozier commanding, is responsible for 4,000 crew and is dealing with over 150 positively identified COVID-19 cases on his ship. Alarmingly, the number of cases is accelerating since the first case seven days ago.

The US Navy had requested its officers to be candid in expressing concerns about COVID-19, and Crozier obliged. He wrote a four-page letter to senior officials in his chain of command, detailing his concerns.  

"This will require a political solution but it is the right thing to do....We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die. If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset — our Sailors....The spread of the disease is ongoing and accelerating."

Somehow, the letter ended up being published by the San Francisco Chronicle, and Navy officials were not happy. Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly, the US Navy's top civilian, supported by Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday, promptly relieved Crozier of his command. The Roosevelt crew made their feelings heard in a video posted to Facebook; it was clear that Crozier was loved.

"The responsibility for this decision rests with me," Modly said. "I expect no congratulations for it and it gives me no pleasure in making it. Captain Crozier is an honorable man who, despite this uncharacteristic lapse of judgment, has dedicated himself throughout a lifetime of incredible service to our nation, and he should be proud of that."

Modly believed Crozier was panicking under pressure and decided to remove him of command before President Trump had to intervene. Speaking to the Washington Post, he said: "If I were president, and I saw a commanding officer of a ship exercising such poor judgment, I would be asking why the leadership of the Navy wasn't taking action itself." Modly was leaking emotion, which would fester into something destructive. If only someone had noticed.

Modly served in the US Navy as a helicopter pilot. His experiences during that time created the foundation for his belief in the sanctity of the chain of command. Crozier's leaked letter fundamentally attacked his belief system, which he saw as a "betrayal"; his use of language indicating that Crozier's actions had potentially triggered an emotional fight response within him. 

A few days after firing Crozier, Modly flew almost 8,000 miles to address Roosevelt's crew. If only someone had asked him, "what are you feeling right now?", he might still have a job. If someone had been curious enough, they might have heard this before anyone else did: "If I could offer you a glimpse of the level of hatred and pure evil that has been thrown my way, my family's way, over this decision, I would." (Washington Post, April 7, 2020) But nobody did.

Instead, Modly spoke with the crew on the deck of the Roosevelt. Heckled, and potentially experiencing an emotional hijack, he said:

"If [Crozier] didn't think that information wasn't going to get out into the public, in this information age that we live in, then he was either A: too naive, or too stupid to be a commanding officer of a ship like this...The alternative is that he did this on purpose...I understand you love the guy. It's good that you love him, but you're not required to love him."
"It was a betrayal of trust with [sic] me, with his chain of command, with you, with the 800 to 1,000 people who are your shipmates on shore right now busting their asses every day to do what they need to do to … to get you guys off here, get you safe, get you healthy, get you clean"

In response, the Washington Post wrote: "Modly is too naive or stupid to be acting Navy secretary because he did not realise that his embarrassing diatribe — delivered to sailors who cheered and applauded Crozier when he left the ship — would leak to the media."

Two days later Defense Secretary, Mark Esper, ordered Modly to apologise for his comments. Modly issued his apology and promptly resigned, apologising for his "lack of situational awareness due to my emotions of the moment" (The Guardian).

On April 24, 2020, in a rare move, the Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday recommended the reinstatement of Captain Crozier to his post as commander of the USS Theodore Roosevelt.

Would Thomas Modly still be in his job if he had asked himself, "What do I feel right now" or someone had cared enough to ask "what do you feel right now?"

Are you missing an opportunity to change resistance to opportunities by understanding and managing emotional responses to your change initiatives?


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