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Emotionally Savvy Leadership

Debunking Conventional Wisdom About Emotions In the Workplace

If your organization has people, then emotions impact your organization.

A legacy of the 20th century industrial age is an attitude that emotions and work don’t mix. This view is counter-productive to modern enterprises that need people who are fully committed and engaged, work effectively in teams, and rely on brainpower to provide value.

Following are five ways that you can escape conventional thinking and understand emotions in the workplace more intelligently. With a clearer understanding of emotions, you can be more artful in managing people, giving them and your organization the best environment for achieving success.

Conventional Thinking: Keep emotions out of the workplace.
Emotions are a critical component of effective thinking and decision making, and essential for top productivity and profitability.

Who hasn't heard someone say, "Check your feelings at the door, there's no place for emotions at work." The problem is that when you check your emotions at the door, you're also checking a big piece of your brain and probably a large chunk of your energy.

Emotions influence profitability, productivity, employee retention, and customer satisfaction, but perhaps not in the ways you might expect. The concept of emotional intelligence has generated high interest in the business community, and with good reason: There is a clear need for leaders, managers and professionals to be more intelligent about emotions.

One of the best predictors of job satisfaction (and therefore, employee retention) is the percentage of time people experience positive emotions while on the job. The emotional climate not only affects costs associated with employee retention, but can directly impact revenue. A study on service organizations found that for each 1% improvement in service climate, a 2% increase in revenue resulted. Not bad.

The key message – once basic professional or technical competencies are met, emotional intelligence becomes the factor that differentiates high performance.

Conventional Thinking: Emotions and reason are mutually exclusive - you make decisions either with your head or your heart.
Emotions and rational thinking are mutually supporting.

Research in the last decade has proven that perception and decision making are all filtered through the emotional part of our brains. Case in point: Patients who suffered brain injuries where the connection between the rational and emotional sections of the brain was severed lost the ability to make even the most basic decisions, despite the fact that their IQ, memory, language, and full logical cognitive abilities remained intact.

We now know that emotions and mood affect productivity in activities we typically think of as entirely rational and unemotional. For example, a short intervention designed to create a positive mood was shown to increase the accuracy and speed of diagnoses made by radiologists.

In short, our emotions are always on, and always have an impact on rational thinking. Savvy leaders, managers, and professionals pay attention to BOTH emotional and logical information, and know one does not exclude the other.

Conventional Thinking: Showing emotions means a person is out of control.
Emotions show a person is meaningfully engaged.

Can too much emotion get in the way or be overwhelming? Of course. The bigger problem in many organizations, however, is too little emotion.

Historically, the workplace has frowned on emotions and restricted their expression. When emotions are expressed, they are much more likely to be uncomfortable emotions like anger than emotions associated with joy or fun. What happens when we turn that model on its head? Consider Southwest Airlines: Clearly an organization that likes to put FUN into work, yet they have one of the best safety, on-time, and profitability records in the industry. Coincidence?

Savvy leaders, managers, and professionals encourage emotional expression, learn skills for handling strong emotions in the workplace, and set boundaries for what is appropriate. They know emotions are what give people energy and passion for what they do.

Conventional Thinking: Emotions are unpredictable.
We can make reasonably accurate predictions about emotions much of the time - and usually do.

While everyone has individual traits, there are universal emotional expressions and a “logic” to how emotions work. Even a basic understanding of emotions allow one to make generally accurate predictions about the expected emotional state of a person, and how that state might change over time or in reaction to various circumstances.

Yet this is precisely what organizations fail to take into account, especially in times of change. It’s well established that most mergers and acquisitions fail to achieve goals, and study after study shows failure to take into account human factors as a major cause. More attention to predictable emotional reactions can greatly help predict productivity more accurately, and guide managers to help employees through transitions and address clashes in company cultures.

As part of my former career in counseling and employee assistance, I had opportunities to participate in critical incident debriefings (brief workplace interventions following a traumatic event, such as a shooting or death). It never failed to amaze me how quickly people returned to productive work following a couple of hours of attention to immediate emotional needs. Likewise, I continue to be astounded by managers who are aware of a deeply felt issue that drags performance month after month, but won’t take a couple of hours to allow staff discussion because “we are too busy.”

Bottom line – savvy leaders know we can make informed predictions about emotions, and use this knowledge artfully to shape climate and support energy and action toward goals.

Conventional Thinking: You can make people feel a certain way if you know the right thing to say or do.
You influence the emotions of others through interpersonal engagement and relationships, which requires understanding your own emotions.

Every day you will hear someone make a comment such as “he made me angry” or “she makes me happy.” Likewise, I am often asked by well-intentioned leaders and managers what they can do to make someone feel a certain way - whether pump up team spirit or help a distressed employee from feeling bad.

This mode of thinking is ultimately frustrating and unproductive. People are not machines, and there isn’t a magic lever you can pull that guarantees a specific emotional response. People are complex, and emotions are subject to an individual’s own history, perception, and thinking.

Instead, it is much more useful to think in terms of influence. While any given action we take can’t make an emotional outcome certain, we can focus on actions that greatly increase the probability of desired emotional responses.

Savvy leaders and managers know negative emotions are not something you fix but something you address. They know the importance of removing obstacles that prevent emotions from following their natural course. They understand their own emotional state can potentially have a profound influence on their organization. They understand a critical function of leaders and managers is to understand how their own emotions create attunement and set the emotional tone of an organization.

by Tom Stevens (c)2010
Tom Stevens helps leaders create and sustain exceptional organizations. To contact him, visit

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