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Reframing Emotions in the Workplace


Emotions are More Essential Than You Might Think….

Imagine you and a colleague hop in a car, pull out of the parking lot, and head for the interstate highway. As you approach the on-ramp, your colleague reminds you that at high speeds your car can careen out-of-control - and to prevent this you should turn your car off.

Nonsense? Of course! Yet I can practically guarantee that you have experienced something similar and just as ridiculous. Anyone who has spent a few years in the world of work has heard someone warned to “leave your emotions at the door” or otherwise advised to “turn off” emotions – they don’t belong at the office.

Turning your emotions off because they get in the way of work is as misplaced an idea as turning off your car because it has the potential of speeding out of control.

It’s an expensive misconception. Positive emotions and climate have been linked to employee retention, increased revenue, better critical thinking, and better decision-making. So who in your organization makes the money? Who gets the work done? If the answer is ‘your people using their brains’ - then don’t you want and need them at their best?

Neuroscience tells us we cannot ‘turn off’ emotions even if we wanted to – at least, not without shutting off effective brain functioning. Our brains are hard-wired so that processes for rational thinking, social interaction, emotional responsiveness, and physical regulation are intertwined in ways that mutually impact each other. Hour by hour, minute by minute, your brain’s emotional processes impact your thinking and behavior - most of the time
helping you navigate the world successfully.

Simply put, emotions CAN’T be turned off - but they CAN be modulated and directed to constructive purposes. Rather than trying to get people to ‘turn off’ emotions, the best leaders model, encourage and develop people to use emotions appropriately, wisely, and intelligently. Indeed, this is the basis for the notion of emotional intelligence (or EQ), the competency of understanding and using emotions in everyday life.

Emotional intelligence is not about baring one’s soul or being “touchy-feely” – it’s about making full use of your brain, experience, and talent.

Complex projects require people working together – just try designing a jumbo jet by yourself. Working together requires good communication, and good communication requires emotional intelligence. Likewise, you won’t get far pitching your innovative idea to the management team, much less selling a product to a customer, without emotional engagement to accompany sound reasoning. On reflection, it’s easy to see this role for emotions in the workplace - especially in knowledge based, high value endeavors.

What is surprising to many people, however, is that emotions are biologically linked to critical thinking – i.e., to the use of the intellect, rationality, and logical analysis. While conventional wisdom says emotions get in the way of analytical thinking, modern neuroscience embraces the idea that
emotions are essential for supporting intellectual performance. Sadness decreases prefrontal cortical activity (associated with idea generation) whereas happiness increases it. A study at Cornell University showed that a good mood increased both the speed and accuracy of radiologists making a diagnosis.

How smart we can perform at any given moment is significantly influenced by emotions, simply because that’s the way the brain is wired. Yes, emotions can lead us astray, but much of the time they help us respond to the world more quickly, accurately, and successfully.

Where the value that people add to organizations comes from brainpower, it behooves leaders to create conditions that enhance people using their brains to the fullest. Leadership that integrates emotional intelligence into the workings and culture of an organization, all else being equal, will have far more brainpower to draw upon – critical thinking brainpower that can be a tremendous competitive advantage. Leaders who cultivate their own emotional awareness and skill are in the best position to cultivate similar qualities in their organizations.

Leadership Idea For leaders of knowledge-based organizations, the question is not if emotions are engaged, but how.

by Tom Stevens (c)2012
Tom Stevens helps leaders create and sustain exceptional organizations. To contact Tom, visit or call 800 727-9788

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