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 people weren’t so emotional!”
In the business world, it seems, employees 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 aspect.
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 labeled “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 functions.
Emotions can even high-jack 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 transformation.