Beliefs, Feelings, Emotions: Leaders They Must Be Understood By Leaders

Beliefs, feelings and emotions play heavily into organizational and a team work culture. This is an area that is often overlooked or taken for granted and yet has one of the greatest effects on promoting a positive synergy within any type of organizational structure.

Beliefs determine how an individual or an organization approaches the future. In my use of the word “beliefs,” its true purpose is that it serves as the major guide for our decisions, which in turn dictates our behaviors. Beliefs are a refection of who we are as individuals they speak to our life experiences and to our heritage and collectively our culture. Beliefs have an influence at every stage of our making a choice. Beliefs shape what we perceive to be good or bad, true or false. Many beliefs are merely habits because we don’t know any other way of thinking or because we haven’t stopped to think about the motives or reasons for those beliefs. Our true beliefs are the principles we live by.

Interesting, beliefs are latent constructs and as such are not observable in themselves. That is, we can only infer that people have certain beliefs by what they say, do, or how they behave. The same holds true for organizations. I have come to realize that our beliefs, feeling and emotions combined, are the strongest components of the work culture. They are the drivers and the expression of those drivers. This holds true for all of the people who make up any size and structure of what we call organization or team. By explaining some of our common experiences with regard to our beliefs, feelings and emotions, we can gain a better understanding of both some of the “how’s” and “whys” when dealing with change and management.

We are what we believe, learn and experience. As we live life through our learned and experienced belief system, we compose our mental model of reality. Reality to each of us is the sum total of what we believe to be fact. These perceived facts can often cause us to not see things in a new way or they can prevent us from possibly seeking more factual information. We find great comfort in our beliefs, usually failing to question anything that may cause us to feel uncomfortable. I personally think we fail to question our deeply held beliefs because in a sense it makes us feel more vulnerable. It’s almost as if we are questioning our own identity of the person we think we are. Also, our beliefs most often feel so natural to us that changing them is a risk few people ever attempt. Adding to this equation is the fact that we have enormous emotional ties to what has worked for us in the past, so we tend to do more of the same, thinking that what worked in the past is the answer to our future.

I think most would agree that “the important thing” we value in our lives either collectively or individually is “our life experiences.” These experiences can relate to family, friends, our jobs, etc. It is human nature to reduce our everyday experiences to personal terms. “My project” is an example of the intimate context that a turned on innovative person would ascribe to a job they are engaged in. Through personal experience and observation, I’ve concluded that two dimensions measure our experiences. They are, the quantity – how much or how little I experience something – and the quality of the experience – was it pleasurable or painful and to what degree. I’m convinced that what we believe, how we feel about what we believe and how those feelings are expressed or suppressed in the form of our emotions, are central to how we perceive and experience life. Therefore, the quality of our life is measured by the sum total of the quality of our experiences. Additionally, we are continually “shaped” by our experiences as we go through life. This shaping process becomes the form and texture of our beliefs. Just as the potter shapes and molds a vessel, we too can shape and mold our beliefs. But, just like the potter, as soon as the vessel is put into the kiln to fire it, the vessel is then robbed of its ability to be reshaped. When we truly fire our beliefs they become virtually impossible to change. To continue the shaping process it takes a major break, a major event, to once again set in motion the evolution of our beliefs.

There are rare instances in our lives where physical or emotional response to trauma based on our animal or primal “fight or flight,” instincts kick in. This can occur when an individual is subjected to severe stress or to what the individual believes to be a threatening situation. The response may be one of confrontation or of avoidance. The fight or flight response can be an excellent safety valve because it enables an individual to quickly resist or move away from the threatening situation. However, for the vast majority of our lives it is our belief system, which guides our actions.

Indeed to the extent we have the ability to think and dream up and believe in threatening situations, we also have the ability to think through and believe in our ability to develop a myriad of solutions, so life is not so threatening. We can learn how to conquer or protect ourselves from those things that used to threaten us to the point where we begin to believe in our enhanced capabilities. Our beliefs can enable us to become more adaptive. With this said, my definitions of beliefs, feelings and emotion are in order.

Beliefs are our mental acceptance of, or our conviction in, the truth or actuality of a statement. Feelings are the mental or physical sensations or awareness that is triggered by our beliefs. Emotions are the complex and often strong response or expression of our feelings, which most often is driven by choice, not reason. Each of these can be explained from the standpoint of how they express themselves from both an individual and organizational context.

Our beliefs, feelings and emotions play a very important role in how we interact and react to our world. They both force us, and allow us, to respond to and deal with the overwhelming environment that surrounds us. In fact, the most chaotic area in our life will most likely involve the areas of our beliefs, feeling and emotions. When we start looking more carefully into the language of our beliefs, feelings and emotions, we will quickly realize that most people do not have a solid understanding of them, even though they comprise the very essence of how we deal with or react to everything and everybody. We use the words beliefs, feelings and emotions, most often without having been taught what they are; however, they are so important that they should at the very least be generally understood because of how they affect what we do and how we act. This is of key importance because in short – beliefs, feelings and emotions are at the heart of how we experience life – life both on and off the job.

The more we learn and understand about human behavior the more we come to realize the extraordinary power that beliefs have over our personal lives and our collective culture. The power of our beliefs often defies logic. Logical or not, it is clear the beliefs which people construct about their life and about themselves, strongly influence the decisions emerging in their minds and hearts. In fact, our personal beliefs are at the very core of our decision-making. That is, most of our decisions are based on the beliefs we hold, whether consciously or subconsciously. Also our beliefs have relative importance. Some beliefs a person will die for, while others are simply what they say they believe and to which has been attached, very little thought. For most, it is easier to say what we believe than to “be” what we believe.

Ultimately, beliefs are not best expressed in words but rather are expressed in the choices made. A good test to measure the importance of beliefs is to ask, “Do I really live, act and behave in a manner consistent with what I say I believe both to others and myself?” Honestly answering this question can provide great insight on both how important a belief is and help in making decisions, which are consistent with that belief. Honestly answering this question could also cause a person to rethink and possibly change their beliefs, to better align with or cope with reality. All of the above also holds true when discussing organizational beliefs.

Beliefs are our attitudes toward what we think to be the truth about a statement. If we strongly believe a statement to be true, then we believe in what that statement espouses. Some beliefs such as a moral belief or what can be called a background belief or true belief can be very strong, staying with us our entire life. Interestingly but not surprising, we tend to gather information that supports our dominant beliefs rather than search objectively for the truth. In fact, the more we have invested in our beliefs the harder it is to change them because we continually seek to reinforce them.

Depending on how strong our moral beliefs are, they can actually define who we are to both others and ourselves. As an example, a person may believe all their life in a particular religion and actively practice that religion as part of their everyday life. That particular religion and the statements it makes represents the truth to them and they are willing to defend or act upon the statements, which that particular religion teaches. Religion is a perfect example of a strong belief because even if any doubts exist about religious beliefs, people often embark on a strategy of self-brainwashing by going to their particular house of worship, saying prayers and doing activities with others who share their beliefs. This practice ultimately helps promote and reinforce beliefs.

If there are still some doubts about religious beliefs many rationalize those doubts by tagging the doubts with an expression of “faith in a mystical belief.” This in fact says, there is no proof that the religious beliefs are based on actual tangible truth or fact, but perhaps rather on faith in beliefs that have been passed down through the centuries or through some other reasoning. I would say that all religions are ultimately based on a belief in faith. Some people’s faith in their beliefs is so strong that they will die defending them.

This discussion on religious beliefs is not meant as a negative about human nature or religion. The reason I used this example of religious belief is because it serves as an excellent example of how beliefs effect emotions. This is important when we realize that emotions follow a belief, not necessarily a proven truth. Studies conducted on the subject of emotions, point to the fact that more than intellectual ability, emotions drive our thinking and interaction with others and situations. I can get very emotional because I believe a snake is going to attack me, when the truth is, the snake is in a coil position to protect itself, not attack. The stronger the belief, the stronger the emotions. It then follows that beliefs and emotions come in degrees. This can then raise the questions, can beliefs be changed? And if so how? And will this change affect emotions?

Once a belief is acquired it tends to stay with us a long time; however, beliefs may change with new evidence or a reflection on old evidence. As an example; I may believe that a particular National Football Team is the best there is. I believe this because they win game after game, some Super Bowl titles and have one of the best quarterbacks in the league. I also like there name, the color of their uniforms and believe in their abilities. My belief is so strong that I have purchased expensive season tickets and really get emotional at every game. I feel fantastic because they almost always win. Then they start to lose a few games. A few, turns into many. I go through denial saying it’s just a temporary thing. Eventually the statistics (evidence) begins to effect my belief. In a few years I change my mind and now believe that another NFL team is best or I may even give up football as something to which I no longer want to commit time and money. I went from an emotional high to an emotional low and on to accepting reality over my beliefs in a team or a sport.

I would propose that if as an individual you want to be more effective, live life with conscious choice rather than through unconscious programming. Observe your beliefs through your emotions and ask what am I feeling? Try to ascertain how your beliefs are causing you to emotionally act, and evaluate what particular beliefs are causing you to feel emotional. Ask the question, if I changed my belief could it cause me to act and feel differently? Would the change allow me to adapt and become more effective and successful? In a beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In an expert’s mind there are few. With regard to changing your beliefs, a possibility is to think like a beginner!

Let’s bring our beliefs discussion into our work world. “The organization is, above all, social. It is people. Its purpose must therefore be to make the strengths of people effective and their weakness irrelevant.” From the Drucker Foundation book The Organization of the future. If I believe I’m working for a great leader and I believe he or she is doing the right thing for the organization, I will most likely be emotionally attracted to do whatever it takes to make that leader successful. If I’m working for what I believe to be a good organization my beliefs will cause me to defend and feel that I should emotionally support that organization. If I’m working with what I believe to be great people on a great project, my beliefs will cause me to feel that I should emotionally and passionately support both the team and the project.

Compounding the positive and negative power of our individual belief system in an organization is the “institutional belief system.” Institutional beliefs, which have also been referred to, as “institutional memory” can be a very positive influence or it can compound the degree of difficulty in making virtually any change within an organization. Quoting Alvin Toffler, “Every business has a belief system and it is at least as important as its accounting system or its authority system.” Even when exceptional leadership for change emerges, overall institutional resistance can remain strong. The comfort and belief in “how we’ve always done things around here” can be and in most situations is, very difficult to overcome.

In my observations, the cultural norms or beliefs are so pervasive that they are almost invisible. If changes are to be made, I believe one of the first things that must be done is find the true answer to “how are things done around here?” When this is done, then a plan can be put together, which can begin the process of changing the belief system. It is very important to determine if the organizational beliefs are “obsolete” or are they “supportive” of the future.

If the organization must change in order to sustain itself it is imperative that leadership clearly communicates why it is changing and continually work on the belief system with facts, pictures, meetings, messages, hallway talk, whatever it takes to help everyone understand the truths behind the new statement. When the beliefs change, the emotions will follow. Only when the beliefs, emotions and the language that surrounds them change, will attitudes become positive toward a new way of doing things.

Beliefs and emotions have been discussed, so where do feelings come into play? As has been stated, feelings are the mental and physical sensations or awareness we experience as a result of our beliefs. If one of our beliefs is challenged we will feel uncomfortable, upset or even angry. As an example we may believe that everyone in our neighborhood should take care of his or her yard. When one person does not go along with our beliefs we could be upset or even very angry depending upon how much we believed that a beautiful neat neighborhood is important. We can even solicit reinforcement for our belief by asking others in the neighborhood how they feel. Their feelings can then have further impact on ours.

If one of our beliefs is highly supported by others we will feel good, excited or even euphoric. If you believe that hard work should be rewarded and your boss publicly praises you for all the hard work you have just put into a project, you will feel very good and your belief in hard work as being the right thing to do will be reinforced. If others are present when you are rewarded they too can have their belief system reinforced or even changed. If they did not believe that hard work gets rewarded, the observation of your being rewarded is an outward sign of a cultural belief system, which the leader’s behavior validates.

As stated earlier a cultural belief system has a very strong effect on individuals. That cultural belief system can make you feel comfortable or uncomfortable. Feeling good or bad about an organization comes from what people believe about the daily activities that occur in the organization. This last example is excellent testament to studies that indicate that the single greatest influence on the work culture of an organization or team is the actions of the leader and their effects on a cultural belief system. Even as you have read what has been presented up to this point, your feelings – those mental or physical sensations and awareness – could be stirring some emotions. Your feelings may agree or disagree with what has been said. You may feel “Oh here we go again,” or “Hey this is interesting, I want to read more.”

How does this discussion of beliefs, feelings and emotions tie into chaos and complexity found in leading an organization? Looking at any type of organization as a complex nonlinear system it becomes easier to view the overall complexity of the total organization or project, rather than simply looking at its parts. Having the ability to see things as connected, and having the ability to align beliefs to the whole rather than a part, one can develop a greater wisdom toward reaching a balance for all concerned. Rather than getting feelings bogged down in the minutia of parts, more energy can be spent seeing how beliefs fit into and are connected to the big picture.

One of the characteristics needed in the new complex work environment is having the wisdom and broad perspective to see the big picture. By seeing the interrelationships of beliefs,feelings and emotions, rather than linear cause-effect chains and by seeing the overall processes required to accomplish the end rather than snap shots in a vacuum, most people will have a stronger and more valid belief in what he or she is doing. They will feel more connected and be better prepared to emotionally support the organizational effort.

The scientific community takes a holistic view seeing all phenomena as inseparable elements of living systems. In living systems very little is absolutely predictable, therefore the emphasis is always on process and change and adaptive systems. Nothing is regarded separately from eventual change and the consequences of those changes on the larger environment. I believe the time has come to look at organizations as living systems. People are whole living entities not just hands. They are thinking, believing, feeling and emotional living beings, which need to be engaged at the highest, level possible. Organizations are above all social structures built on people. If an organization, group or team is to be successful, it must build itself on the strengths of its entire staff. The structure of the organization must nourish and grow the talents of those people who display interest in wanting to be part of the process.

Just as the scientific community has taken a holistic view, so too should the organizational community or project team. They should look at the whole rather than its parts. This especially holds true for the leadership of an organization where a holistic view helps keep everyone moving in one direction within a continually changing process. In order for people’s minds and hearts to really get behind their work they must absolutely understand the big picture and truly believe, in what they are about to undertake. To quote Alvin Toffler, “You’ve got to think about the big things while you’re doing the small things, so that all the small things go in the right direction.” Also, the idea of thinking as a holistic complex organization or team is to get the whole moving faster than its parts. Stanley Davis, author of Future Perfect talks about a holistic model in this way. “The whole is not the sum of the parts, but rather the sum of the parts and their interrelationships. It’s the relationship between parts that give them significance,” he further states: “Organization, like technology and business, needs to refocus on the compatibility of parts, such that each may access any other part, and embody the whole simultaneously.”

We create the world we live in, the organization we work in, the teams we are members of and the beliefs we hold both as individuals and collectively as organizations. In other words, we each create our own reality and the same holds true for any type of organization. Evaluation of beliefs helps you understand how important they are in your decision making process. When self-beliefs go unexamined they can impose restrictive non-holistic thinking. It is also important to take a holistic view of the collective beliefs to make sure they are in alignment with organizational outcomes.

Organizations must purposefully create and facilitate an environment in which both leaders and followers can develop their capabilities by providing greater opportunities to experience and practice shared beliefs within flexible roles. Instead of fixing pieces and parts, leaders and followers must redesign the processes as they apply to the whole. They must believe and understand that their collective performance relates to the total performance of the organization. This is what holistic systems thinking is all about. When this becomes part of the cultural belief system, both leaders and followers will have increased their ability to impact outcomes and effect change from any position in the organization.

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You MAY reprint the information contained in this article as long as no portion of the contents are modified and it used “exclusively” within your organization. You must also give credit to information by including the tag line...Roger M. Ingbretsen, Author, Speaker, Leadership Coach, Organizational and Career Developer.

Author:. Roger has a Masters degree in Organizational Leadership, from Gonzaga University, a dual undergraduate degree in Economics & Business Administration, from Park University, an AA degree in Business, as well as 1,500 certified hours of training in technical disciplines. He’s had over forty articles, numerous white papers and two books and two eBooks published.

Roger is a member of the International Coaching Federation. Additionally, he has completed many pro...

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