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“It’s done.” What House of Cards can teach us on emotional regulation

Written by: Jonathan Dunnett
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Recently, I was having a discussion with a friend about an unhappy CEO. The CEO was unhappy with a deal he/she had made. Worse still, the CEO had made the call to sign off on the deal, and now was not doing a great job of emotional regulation.

“Why?” you may ask. Why would a CEO sign off on a bad deal? There could be a variety of reasons: lack of experience, external pressures, fear, or perhaps some other driver. While we all make bad decisions at times, in this particular situation, the CEO in question wanted a chance to do it over again.

In this context, the CEO may not have considered the friction from this decision and the “one-way door” choice. While I recognize Jeff Bezos is a polarizing person and topic, his decision methodology of “one-way doors” versus “two-way doors” can be freeing from the perspective of decision making. In short, can you go back quickly if something doesn’t work? That’s a two-way door approach Is it prohibitive to go back? That’s a one-way door approach, and those decisions need to be more deliberate.

A two-way door might be something like, “We want to let employees wear polo shirts every second Wednesday.” Likely, if for some reason that is a problem, it can be easily reversed. A one-way door might be something like, “We’re going to invest $50M in a new building.” Once that decision is triggered, it’s hard to stop once the cement is being poured and the ball is in motion.

What about the emotions?

But, after the decision: what then? Furthermore, what about the emotional journey all throughout making that decision?

Emotions are a nearly constant companion, before, during and after decisions are made. Many emotions can be pervasive throughout the decision making process, like fear, underconfidence or even anger. While emotions certainly help us, as leading emotions expert Paul Ekman shares here in a blog post, “sometimes our emotions get us into trouble by leading us to respond in ways that are inappropriate for the circumstances.”

“sometimes our emotions get us into trouble by leading us to respond in ways that are inappropriate for the circumstances.”

Paul EKman

In the case of this CEO, he/she were experiencing all kinds of emotions: anger, fear, and frustration, just to name a few.

As I reflected on the problem, I thought of the Underwoods in House of Cards (I was a fan of the show prior to the significant issues that arose): often, in the midst of extreme stress, Francis or Claire would exclaim, “It’s done!” , and that was it: no more “buts”, no more discussion on the topic. That phrase, for these characters, triggered an extreme moment of resilience and a profound ability to conduct emotional regulation. There was no more discussion of what had just happened, because it was done. Finito. No coming back.

The gravity and utility of such neurological devices were an amazing asset to these characters during times of extreme stress, and I think there’s something to be learned. The CEO in question here clearly needed to be able to move on after the deal was struck. The deal was very much a one-way door decision.

In a 2018 study, researchers found that ability to emotionally regulate was tied to emotional intelligence. We all know this a muscle we need to stretch and develop, but how can we do that, and how can we tie that back into future decisions? A few thoughts:

  • What are the critical decisions you have ongoing or ahead? Consider what is on your horizon, or what is probable.

  • When you do a pre-mortem, what are the emotional aspects you should be watching? As you map out the possibilities of decisions, the reactions from various stakeholders and the emotions and your responses, how are you thinking about these moments?

  • What will your response be? Can you use specific triggers, devices or self coaching to get past critical moments? One of the biggest advantages you can create for yourself is to have a process that works for you. Whether it’s a trigger word/phrase like the Underwoods, three deep breaths, counting back from ten: whatever it is that works for you, plan it and use it. You don’t have to move heaven and earth here, but, if you are intentional about this, you will find what works for you.

Understanding yourself adequately enough as you need to for point three (your response) is critical: it’s tough to also be “active” in those moments. When we are tired, stressed, hungry or otherwise, our brain may not be at peak operating mode, and that is when our emotions can start to get away from us. So, taking care of those potential detractors will help us to be in better decision making and emotional regulation shape.

As you look ahead at looming decisions, how can you use self-guiding conventions like “It’s done?” As you focus on being deliberate, strategic and thoughtful in the future, you will be better equipped to assess and handle those crucible moments and less apt to find yourself in a situation like our friend, the CEO.

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