What’s your mood?

17 Dec 2020
Carrie Birmingham

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Are there things that you want, but which don’t materialise? Are you feeling confused or cynical? Do you want some insight about how you can change this? 

As an HR person, there is a stereotype that I am going to talk about; “feeeeelings” (notice the voice emphasis here and the accompanying eye roll!).  Well I’m afraid, I am guilty as charged.  As a organisational consultant, I often ask clients, “What’s your mood?”.  Let me tell you why.   

Humans are wired for safety, belonging and dignity; after all, as cavemen these were the things that helped keep us alive. Whilst these days we face fewer woolly mammoths in our daily lives, our brains are wired for threats big and small. For example, being overwhelmed by email, juggling conflicting priorities, or – at the other end of the scale – responding to a pandemic (and the realities of Lockdown 3.0 and home schooling).

When our safety, belonging or dignity is threatened, we automatically get ‘triggered’; the result is a shift in our mood. Frustration, despondency and fear descend like a cloud that follows us around long after the event that triggered it. This is what I noticed in myself last year every time I watched or heard the news.

The good news is that this is entirely normal! Our moods are our emotional dispositions, our internal response to what is happening. We tend to fall into specific moods as a result of our historical patterns and life experiences. These patterns shape how we operate in the here and now. Often we are not even conscious of them. 

For example, an employee who has seen lots of corporate initiatives come and go with little effect is likely to have a mood of cynicism.  This inner state will affect everything. For example, they may make sarcastic comments to their colleagues, do the basics to avoid attention, or take a sick day when they might previously have come to work. 

In his rather heavy going book, Otto Scharmer argues that we are usually aware of what and and how we do things, but the blind spot is that we don’t know, “where does our action come from?” He goes on to describe this blind spot as, “the (inner) source from which we operate when we do what we do—the quality of attention that we use to relate to and act in the world.” I appreciate it sounds rather deep; this illustration from ‘The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse’ by Charlie Mackesy sums up Scharmer’s words in a lighter way.

Our moods are a huge part of this ‘inner source’. Our moods are both assessment of the future (i.e will this work?) and simultaneously our moods shape what is and isn’t possible for us, because they stop us or help us take actions (i.e. “I don’t think this will work, so I am cynical and don’t offer my ideas” is a sort of self-fulfilling prophesy).

When I was first introduced to this idea, I wasn’t even aware of my moods and so it took real practice to be able to tune into them. I also had to take responsibility for my moods, because I can easily forget that I can choose my mood, rather it being something that just happens as a result of events.  I find it helpful to remind myself of the following quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet;

“for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Why is this relevant ? 

One of my coaching clients shared her frustration of not getting valuable feedback despite asking her colleagues.  As we talked about this, she shared her skepticism of other people’s honesty in giving feedback and she gave me a list of very logical reasons why people wouldn’t be honest (i.e. damaging relationships, that you risk the individual retaliating).  However, this mood of skepticism was influencing her interpretation of the feedback she received in ways she wasn’t aware of.  So we explored what mood might be more helpful to enable her to “be” different when she was having these conversations, and hence open the door for these conversations to be positive and useful.  We identified that a mood of curiosity would help her to slow down and allow her to really listen and ask better questions, ultimately facilitating more honest feedback.

Leadership and being a beginner 

The leaders I work with are constantly being stretched and challenged. At a time when businesses are going through seismic changes, my clients may be under pressure to explore untapped opportunities or overcome unexpected obstacles. All of a sudden, we feel like we’re beginners again and because these challenges are new or unfamiliar, they can act as triggers that prompt discomfort or unhelpful moods. In her book, Gloria Flores highlights that as a beginner we don’t feel competent, efficient, useful or independent. This can prompt us to fall into unproductive moods that prevent learning, e.g. confusion, resignation, frustration.  

Last year I had an opportunity to set up a programme of Leadership Development that was hosted globally and hence virtually. I noticed how I immediately resisted the idea of facilitating virtually.  I justified this to myself, that “being in a room was better,” but underneath this logical explanation was actually a mood of fear – a fear that it might not work, that I might not be any good at it and that I might make mistakes.  With my coach, I was able to identify that these moods were stopping me from learning and that in fact a mood of trusting myself and patience would be much more helpful for me.  I found I had to practice everyday tapping into my mood (see below for how to do this), to help me keep fostering a mood of trust and patience, and some days that was really hard! 

As a result I took on the programme, developed some new skills and we have achieved some amazing results.  By talking openly about mood, I was able to create the conditions for learning that helped me to step into the opportunity and also helped me do that well.  Mood matters.

How to take a temperature check on your mood:

If you are interested on how you can use this yourself:

  • Take a moment to pause, breathe deeply and tune into yourself
  • Then ask yourself the question, “What is my mood right now?”
  • Get curious about what is happening around you, and consider what ‘assessments’ (i.e. stories you might be telling yourself) are creating this mood? 
  • Ask yourself, is this mood productive for you?  (See diagram above to get a sense of the moods that might be productive or unproductive) 
  • If the mood is unproductive, ask yourself what could help you shift your mood?  If the mood is productive, ask yourself how can I use this mood to be more helpful to me?