Blog article

As Software Engineers, our emotions love to go on a rollercoaster ride on a daily basis.

An incoming deadline in your current project might make you feel worried. A decision taken without your input might make you feel disappointed. Watching someone you mentor get better each day might make you feel overjoyed.

Emotions of varying degrees of intensity come at us constantly, just like a stream of punches from Mike Tyson on his golden years. This has to do with the fact that we’re humans after all, and humans are emotional creatures. Everything we experience in life is first processed by our emotional brain, and then by our rational brain. This hardwiring nature poses a potential threat to us.

What happens when our behavior gets determined solely on the grounds of what we experience emotionally? Can we guarantee those actions comply with what our rational brain would suggest to do? How can we find a balance?

I was able to experience the effects this threat can represent. Not long after doing so, I realized people around me were also falling under the fierce claws of emotional hijacking in their lives. This fueled me to find some answers. I’d like to share some things I was able to learn, that have helped me start balancing reason and emotion before directing my actions. Hopefully, something here might work for you.

A short story

Some months ago, my team and I were taking part of a daily meeting with our client counterpart. Things were going fine, until we were suddenly asked to make a huge shift in our development process practices, without having previously shared the reason for that change, nor asked the team its thoughts about it. This process modification not only went against things I believed in, but also meant there would now be an increased overhead for developers in their daily work routines with no apparent benefit.

I started to feel upset during the meeting. My instant reaction was to state my point of view, and start questioning the decision, right there, at that moment. The discussion started to heat up. The back and forth with the client rapidly led me to frustration.

Was my behavior during that meeting appropriate? Or did I let my feelings get in the way? Was I in control of my actions?

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence refers to our ability to be aware and reason about our emotions and the emotions of others, and make adjustments to our behavior in a way that takes into account both logic and emotion.

In other words, we can think of Emotional Intelligence as our ability to sit both our emotional and rational brains in a room, and have them come to an agreement about the best course of action to take for a given situation.

An emotionally intelligent person is capable of understanding what situations trigger certain emotions, and also detect the precise moment when each of these situations is taking place, so as to be able to direct his behavior in a way that’s beneficial both for him and others involved.

During my team’s daily meeting, a situation took place which triggered a specific emotion in me: ANGER. That feeling transitioned through different shades of intensity as events developed. First, I was upset. Some moments later, I was frustrated. This emotional rollercoaster took the best out of me, and led to my emotional brain being able to direct all my actions. I took a defensive position, and started to argue against a wall about my view of the situation, not considering for a moment the emotional context of the client counterpart, nor the potential impact my team could suffer from a situation like this.

Performing adjustments to our behavior to prevent these types of reactions isn’t easy. Understanding how to develop new habits might help us take baby steps toward behavior change.

In other words, we can think of Emotional Intelligence as our ability to sit both our emotional and rational brains in a room, and have them come to an agreement about the best course of action to take for a given situation.

Habitual Behavior

According to cognitive neuroscientists, we are conscious of only about 5 percent of our cognitive activity. This means that most of our daily actions and behavior go beyond our control. Not long ago, while brushing my teeth prior to a company trip, I remember thinking: “Once I finish cleaning my teeth, I’m going to put the toothbrush in my luggage”. Couple of moments later I went back to the bathroom, and realized the toothbrush was in its usual place, right inside the cabinet…

We think we can directly control our actions, but the truth is that habitual behavior tends to win most of the time. In order to adopt a behavior change we need to introduce new habits, and practice them constantly in an effort to blend them in with our unconscious behavior.

In the book The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay introduces a simple yet effective mechanism to develop new habits.

We first need to figure our trigger, i.e., the precise moment which puts the old behavior into motion. The more specific we can be when describing the trigger, the better, as it will be easier to detect in our day to day situations.

Next, we need to define our new habit. This refers to the new behavior we want to adopt. We want to aim for short and specific habits (micro-habits), as this will make them simpler to reason about and put into practice.

After figuring out the above, we can place each component under the New Habit Formula:

  • When this happens… (here goes your trigger)
  • Instead of(here goes the habit you’re trying to get rid of)
  • I will(here goes the habit you’re aiming to adopt)

Our toothbrush example might come in handy here: (probably not the coolest habit to develop, but who knows…)

  • When I finish brushing my teeth at my bathroom, and I turn off the faucet
  • Instead of placing my toothbrush inside the cabinet
  • I will place it in my luggage

Now that we have our formula, we’re faced with the toughest part: practice. In order to transform this into a new habit, we need to work on spotting our trigger whenever it happens, and force our behavior to match our new form instead of our old.

Spotting our trigger will hopefully be easy, given that we were very specific when we defined it. Whenever I’m at my bathroom, at the moment I close the faucet, my brain will detect that’s the precise moment when we need to put our new behavior in action.

There will be times when we’ll fail to follow through, and default to our old behavior. We’ll store the toothbrush inside our cabinet more than once. Nevertheless, the important thing here is to be persistent, and keep trying in the future. There will come a time in which we’ll no longer need to think about this formula in order to store our toothbrush in our luggage.

We think we can directly control our actions, but the truth is that habitual behavior tends to win most of the time.

Emotion Driven Habits

So, can we take advantage of the New Habits Formula to prevent our emotions from getting the best of us? In my personal experience, we can.

I started to focus on developing new Emotion Driven Habits, which have the particularity of putting an emphasis on our emotional state at the time of articulating our trigger. For example, one trigger definition for an Emotion Driven Habit could be:

  • When Bob yells at me and I’m feeling intimidated

Being able to describe and detect these situations as they happen, helps us develop our Emotional Intelligence, most specifically, our self-awareness. We’re putting into practice a mechanism which allows us to constantly think about what we’re feeling, when we’re feeling it, and what situation triggered those emotions.

In order to complete our new Emotion Driven Habit formula, we can ask our emotional and rational brains what’s the agreed course of action to take, and write that down as our new habit. Successfully adopting this new habit will directly develop another aspect of our Emotional Intelligence, self-regulation:

  • When John tells us to adopt a new team practice I don’t agree with, and that makes me feel upset
  • Instead of starting a discussion at that moment
  • I will shut up and listen to all he has to say, and let the meeting end

This new habit will allow me to gain some time to better think about this whole situation. After listening to everything John has to say, I can give some time to my emotions to cool down, and think about the best course of action with a more balanced perspective.

Why is John asking for this? What’s the context? Are we the only development team? Or are there a lot more? Is someone putting pressure on John? Can we suggest an alternative to address the same root problem he’s trying to solve?

More time rewards me with an opportunity to think about the best course of action to take for this given situation.

Final thoughts

The nature of the human brain suggests we’re hardwired in a way that gives emotions a lead when the time to manage our behavior comes. In order to avoid our feelings to completely dictate what we do, we need to focus on developing our Emotional Intelligence, as a means to be able to reason about these emotions as they happen, and direct our responses in the most beneficial way.

The Emotion Driven Habit technique can be a useful tool to help us reason about these emotional triggers, and adopt new habits in our personal and work lives with a direct impact in our self-awareness and self-regulation abilities.

Can you recall any recent situations when emotions took the best out of you?

What new habit would you put into practice so as to avoid it from happening in the future?