Emotions At Work
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Preparing for a speech to the leadership of an organization facing major
restructuring, I asked the meeting planner for background on the audience.
“We’ve presented all the facts,” she replied. “But it would be much easier if
everyone weren’t so emotional!”
In the business world, it seems, people are supposed to think logically and
act rationally. Steeped in this belief, leaders quantify everything they can and
try to present information in ways that help employees make objective decisions.
Emotions are not supposed to be part of the equation. But the fact is that
all employees bring their emotions to the workplace. And the more I
study the psychology of people at work, the more I see how emotions are integral
to everything that happens in an organization.
According to the neurologist and author Antonio Damasio, for example, the
center of our conscious thought (the prefrontal cortex) is so tightly connected
to the emotion-generating amygdala, that no one makes decisions based
on pure logic. Damasio’s research makes it clear that mental processes we’re not
conscious of drive our decision making, and logical reasoning is really no more
than a way to justify emotional choices.
Emotion gets our attention. Emotionally charged stimuli (ECS) persist much
longer in memory, and people remember the emotional components (fear, joy,
surprise, anger, embarrassment, etc.) of an experience better than any other
Emotions dictate actions. Since our past experiences carry an emotional
charge that is encoded in memory, we subconsciously assess a new situation based
on past emotions – and are then motivated to act on those we have labelled
“good” and reject those deemed “bad.”
Emotions drive performance. Positive emotions increase energy, learning and
motivation. Worry, resentment or boredom decreases physical and mental energy
and impairs mental agility. And when the pressure becomes excessive, soaring
cortisol levels combined with adrenaline can actually paralyze our mental
Emotions can even highjack a negotiation. When we negotiate in a positive
mood, it increases our tendency to select a cooperative strategy and helps us to
avoid the development of hostility and conflict. Negotiating when angry makes us
less likely to accurately judge the interests of opponents and less likely to
achieve joint gains.
Emotions are highly infectious and “catching” them is a universal human
phenomenon. A research study, conducted by Peter Totterdell of the University of
Sheffield, had nurses record their moods each day at work for three weeks. He
found that the mood of different teams shifted together over time. Totterdell
also found this same tendency of emotions to move in a lockstep fashion in teams
of accountants and cricket players.
It’s also true that emotions flow most strongly from the most powerful person
in the room to others. We monitor our leaders and are extremely sensitive to
what the boss says and does. Researchers at California State University, Long
Beach found that when business leaders were in a good mood, members of their
work groups experienced more positive emotions and were more and productive than
groups whose leaders were in a bad mood.
Good or bad, emotional responses can happen before we have time to process
them consciously. In a study at the University of Tubingen in Germany, people
were shown photos of happy or sad faces on a computer then asked questions to
gauge their emotional reactions. Subjects reported corresponding emotions to the
photos – even when the pictures lasted only fractions of a second.
So I made sure my harried meeting planner understood that, sure, we all want
change to make logical sense. But we also need – and it’s a primary need – to
view challenges and solutions in ways that validate and influence the way we
feel about our organizations, our jobs, and ourselves.
And that involves emotions. Because like it or not, as I told her, emotions
have already been driving or inhibiting the organization’s successful
About the Author
Kinsey Goman, Ph.D.is an international
Keynote speaker on collaborative leadership and the impact of
language in the workplace.
coach to executives to improve their leadership presence and
Leadership blogger for Forbes and author of "The Silent Language of
Leaders: How Body Language Can Help - or Hurt - How You Lead.”
Carol@CarolKinseyGoman.com Authors Google+
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Article Published/Sorted/Amended on Scopulus 2009-11-25 13:36:40 in Employee Articles