Developing Conscious Compartmentalizing Skills

Beyond Emotional Quotient: Skills for Great Leaders

In his blog on October 4, 2015, Daniel Goleman, the author of Emotional Intelligence stated, “Keep in mind that self-awareness isn’t just navel-gazing. It’s the presence of mind to actually be flexible in how you respond. It allows you to be centered, and know what your body is telling you.”

While much has been written about emotional intelligence or EQ as many have come to call it, not much is written about how to improve your EQ.  He and many others stress the importance of knowing your emotions and realizing where you’re most likely to react.  EQ also stresses the need to read people well and determine their needs based upon active listening and careful observation.  

However, a very stressful situation can push your buttons and often force you into reactive responses you may later regret. These strong emotions do not wash away easily; they tend to hang around and color your attitude long after the triggering event has occurred.  This residual effect can cause you to display emotions that are not appropriate for the situation or the person.  While you may very well be aware of your emotions, the next critical step is how you manage those emotions.  

I previously had a client who got into difficulty in his company and began to feel overwhelmed.  Because he was the entrepreneur, he felt it was his fault and that he was completely responsible for digging out of the problem.  He felt increasingly isolated, afraid and resentful that everyone expected him to handle the large number of problems.  The stress overwhelmed him and he began reacting to even small slights or requests.  He got a reputation for being a bully and angry and eventually people told him he needed anger management counseling.  

He was well aware of his feelings.  He confessed to all the emotions of being overwhelmed, unhappy, afraid, isolated, and resentful.  He had identified his feelings quite well.  He was a martial arts and meditation practitioner and conventional wisdom would say that these habits would help him deal with all the negative feelings and that he would have a fairly high EQ.  In addition he was a great salesperson.  On good days he was very charming and personable and could sell refrigerators in Alaska.  Despite all this, he was not managing his emotions at work well.  All the parts were there but there was one piece missing.  

Conscious Compartmentalizing  

Wikipedia defines compartmentalizing this way: “Compartmentalization is an unconscious psychological defense mechanism used to avoid cognitive dissonance, or the mental discomfort and anxiety caused by a person’s having conflicting values, cognitions, emotions, beliefs, etc. within themselves.

Compartmentalization allows these conflicting ideas to co-exist by inhibiting direct or explicit acknowledgement and interaction between separate compartmentalized self states.”

Much of the literature surrounding conscious compartmentalizing is in regards to the management of risk-taking for entrepreneurs.  The advice is probably sound but it is limited to the idea that in order to appropriately evaluate the risk of any decision, the entrepreneur needs to compartmentalize their feelings of fear and review the decision rationally.  

However, leaders at all levels need to use this skill.  Imagine you have just had a very difficult meeting with someone who has created a major problem for your company.  This problem may cost money, cause litigation and create other unseen future damage.  This person is not being helpful and is unwilling to accept responsibility and is unable to understand the full extent of the problems.  You are understandably angry and afraid of the cost to your company, your reputation and your personal future.   This person has created a major crisis that could have long reaching effects.  You wonder if your company will survive.  

After this meeting you have another meeting with a new client who could bring your company a considerable amount of business.   How do you behave?  Are you friendly and able to have a conversation or are you still struggling with concern over the last meeting?  Do you make your best impression on this new client or do you struggle and fumble the meeting?  

This is why great leaders must consciously compartmentalize every day.  In order to attend to your new client, you must pack up your concerns and store them for analysis later.  You must return yourself to the emotional status of upbeat and pleased to meet a new client rather than harried and upset from the last meeting.  

How to compartmentalize

At the end of the first difficult meeting and before you take the next meeting, you must take a few minutes to handle your emotions.  You must remind yourself of these truths

  1. If I handle this meeting well, I could make my situation better
  2. I want this new client to feel welcome
  3. I prefer to be known as charming and friendly than angry and harried
  4. It will not improve my situation to worry, I will handle this when I have time to look at it carefully
  5. It is important to me to continue to do business as usual
  6. I am putting my concerns about this event into a suitcase and closing the lid for the next hour

You may be able to write a few of your own ideas along these lines as well.  The point is to review your emotions and allow yourself a few minutes to slow your physiological reactions while you handle your mental thoughts assertively.  

Recently, in the movie “The Bridge of Spies” the soviet spy was asked if he was worried about what would happen to him when he was returned to Russia in exchange for US spies.  His reply was “Would it help?”  This is not to say that one just accepts fate.  Rather it is to say that worrying does not necessarily improve your situation or help you to figure out a solution.  Allow yourself the space to reason and analyze the possible choices. This is much better than worrying and ruining your whole day and possibly that of your employees or losing a few customers because you don’t appear to be pleased for their business.  

Leadership & Compartmentalizing

It is a skill that one must acquire to work as a leader.  You will, in any given day, hear disappointing things about your employees, learn about a competitor who trashed your name, find out that your profits are not what you expected or that your costs just went up because a supplier raised their price.  These events happen without warning and can trigger physical and thus emotional responses that you must manage.  The first step is, as Daniel Goleman and many others say, to be aware of your emotions.  However the next step is knowing what to do with them.  Simply meditating and being calm is not sufficient.  This is getting away from the problem and no doubt important for stress management for leaders.  However, at some point you must deal with that problem. Yet, unfortunately, knowing how you feel about it is simply not enough.  You must learn to store your feelings until you have the luxury to examine them and deal with them in a productive and effective way.  

Now imagine that you just finished that first difficult meeting but instead of walking directly into your next meeting with the new client, you sit quietly and tell yourself the above list of 6 truths.  You listen to your heartbeat and breathe deeply and imagine the next meeting going very well.  You see yourself packing up the difficult emotions into a suitcase and setting it by a door.  When the time is right, you will take that suitcase and open it and deal with everything inside.  But for now, you will let all that go.  You smile and think about this new client and put your jacket on and invite her in.  

How do you welcome your new client now?  


If you have learned to identify your emotions and are self-aware, congratulations!  You have the first skill mastered. If you have learned to read others and understand how your reactions are affecting them, you have mastered another great skill.  What you may need to practice is consciously compartmentalizing your reactions so that you are that same great person to your employees, even when you are completely furious about some mistake or problem that someone else caused. While it’s okay to be furious, it’s just not okay to be furious at everyone around you.  You are the leader and your employees will not respect your nor will they feel confident in you if you don’t appear to be even-tempered and rational.  As the leader, you want to instill confidence, trust and respect in your employees.  Do you respect others who over-react or shout for no apparent reason?  Of course not.  Then you must be that person who garners respect by making sure your emotions appear to be even, though that may be far from the truth.  It is unreasonable to tear down the whole building if the door is broken.  If you are not marshalling your emotions and allowing yourself to exhibit them to everyone uninvolved in the triggering situation, you are metaphorically razing the building because the door is broken.  Reign in and compartmentalize your emotions to give yourself space to work on fixing what needs repair, leaving all your other relationships intact.  


Written by Terri Friel

© Venture Connects 2019. Powered by PeopleVine. Terms of use | Privacy Policy | Cookie Policy