Emotions in the Workplace: The Critical Role They Play on the Job

By Dick Martin

Business people of both sexes are decidedly ambivalent about emotion in the workplace.

At best, it is awkward and better be over quickly. At worse, it is a pollutant clouding the cold, data-driven reasoning that business supposedly runs on.

But for at least two decades, an alternative view has been struggling to take hold in corporate America. Its popularity has waxed and waned with the economic cycles, perhaps reaching a low point during the Great Recession.

Still, a 1998 Harvard Business Review article on “emotional intelligence” ranks as the magazine’s bestselling reprint of all time, even though the editors studiously avoided the term in the title. There are psychologists and sociologists who find the whole concept hopelessly “fuzzy.”

Charles Darwin would have approved

Nevertheless, the article spawned a library’s worth of follow-up articles and books, not to mention an entire industry of online courses, conferences, seminars, and consultantcies. What once had seemed like the softest of business concepts turned into hard currency for armies of consultants.

Charles Darwin would have approved. he pretty much established that animals need emotions to survive. Fear causes them to avoid predators. Anger triggers aggression that helps them protect their young, their mates, their food, and anything else necessary for the species survival.

Humans also need emotions. They help us make quick, complex decisions when we have to, and they feed our more deliberative judgments, whether we realize it or not. They focus our attention , make things easier to remember, and even play a big role in our moral development.

Emotions tell us what’s important; they are the seat of our values. They help us structure our social lives and are the scaffolding on which our self-concept rests.

Most people have experienced the six primary emotions before they learn to talk. They are happiness, surprise, fear, sadness, disgust, and anger.

As we mature and our playpen expands, we acquire social emotions such as embarrassment, jealousy, guilt, shame, and pride.

The role of emotions

Emotions play such a big role in our lives that there are more than 600 words in English to describe them verbally, not to mention 43 facial muscles to express them physically. And although human beings speak more than 6,000 languages, about 90 percent of people across different cultures have no trouble figuring out if someone is registering happiness, surprise, or disgust just by looking at the person’s face. We are supersensitive to the slightest shift in people’s facial expressions, especially if they are registering fear or anger.

We are not slaves to emotional cues and triggers. We can use reason to evaluate our emotions, interpret them, and even reassess our initial reaction to them. We can soften their impact or shift their meaning.

In other words, we can control our own emotions as well as the effect that other people’s emotions have on us. In fact, the ability to detect, assess, and control one’s emotions is one of the predictors of success in relating to the Other. So, somewhat paradoxically, connecting with the Other depends on developing a deep understanding of ourselves — what triggers our strongest emotions, and how the emotions we show impact others.

For example, an executive who understands that looming deadlines bring out the worse in her won’t schedule an important meeting if she has work piling up. A manager who knows that talking about certain subjects tends to get him angry will think twice before reacting to an opinion that would normally set him off.

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How managers regulate emotions

Self-awareness and self-regulation are only two aspects of emotional intelligence. But they are fundamental, and they can be learned.

Unlike other management skills, however, they are not the product of higher reasoning and logic. Like emotions themselves, they originate largely in the brain’s most ancient depths — in the limbic system, which governs feelings, impulses, and drives. Research has demonstrated that learning anything that involves the limbic system requires determination, lots of practice, and honest feedback from a spouse, trusted colleague, or coach.

Regulating one’s emotions ­doesn’t mean that we should all become placid automatons. On the contrary, showing the right kind of emotion at the right time can be a powerful means of communication in its own right.

A manager who pretends to be unmoved by significant events, such as a major layoff or the death of a colleague, risks appearing clueless or insensitive. On the other hand, someone who flies off the handle at the slightest provocation is not only disruptive, but risks losing people’s trust. The trick is modulating one’s emotions and expressing them appropriately.

People who understand their own emotions are more capable of dealing with those of others. I once worked for a CEO who told me the worst part of his job was serving as the “corporate psychiatrist.” He hated dealing with the steady stream of senior executives who came into his office looking for reassurance.

The need to be self-aware

The man was so supremely confident and optimistic that he probably never had a self-reflective thought in his life. So he ­didn’t realize that his bluster and micromanagement style was actually the source of whatever doubts the other senior executives harbored about themselves. He interpreted their apparent lack of confidence as “wimpiness.”

I once showed this CEO an employee survey indicating that people’s confidence in the business was indirectly proportional to their management level. In other words, the further they were from him, the more likely they were to think the company was going the right direction.

He focused on the great scores at the lower levels and completely ignored the dismal results among the people reporting to him directly. What the survey told me is that the CEO was a great communicator, but a lousy boss. Naturally, he was never able to build a strong senior team and eventually left with a division that he sold off to another company, which eased him out a year later.

Being starts with being OtherWise keenly self-aware.

Excerpted from OtherWise: The Wisdom You Need to Succeed in a Diverse World Organization, by Dick Martin. © 2012 Dick Martin. All rights reserved. Published by AMACOM Books (www.amacombooks.org); a division of American Management Association, 1601 Broadway, New York, NY 10019.

Dick Martin is a writer whose articles have appeared in the harvard Business Review and other publications. The author of 'Tough Calls," he was executive vice president of public relations, employee communications, and brand management for AT&T. Contact him at dickmartinbooks@aol.com.