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Don’t Get Emotional

By Gary Rich on Nov. 1, 2010 in Leadership Bites


“Don’t get too emotional.”  That little piece of advice - sometimes issued as the warning, “You are being emotional” - is heard far too often.  It’s still true that the vast majority of executives believe emotions are bad for business.  It’s okay to be passionate about products and ideas, but don’t get too worked up about your colleague who solicits your direct reports for jobs without discussing with you first or the boss that is making a big mistake with a customer.  I know, I know – The Emotional Intelligence mini-revolution aside –most business people still don’t want to go there.  It’s as if people are supposed to show up at work and flip the switch off – just don’t have any feelings please, there’s no room for emotional decision-making here. 

OK, so maybe there’s something to this line of thinking.  Many, many business decisions – maybe even most business decisions – should be grounded in rational analysis and careful consideration.  Got it.  Although in my view, it’s not just emotional decision-making that’s taboo – it’s emotions in general.  In many corporate cultures, there is an unstated policy that emotions are not permitted.  The problem is that the “emotion-free workplace” is not a good strategy.  Denying, ignoring or suppressing feelings doesn’t work.  It creates problems, de-motivates people and it isn’t smart business.

Let me first say that I believe un-censored and unbridled expression of one’s emotions is not usually helpful – especially in the workplace.  Leaders who yell, storm out of a room, sob, or slam their fists are not getting the best of out of others or creating productive work cultures.  As Goleman said, emotions are contagious and leaders have a responsibility to be self-aware and to self-manage.  Good leaders make conscious choices about what they share, how they share it.

But here’s what happens.  Since emotions are not “allowed”, people stuff them, control them, dampen them, and deny them.  Many leaders self-manage by denying their feelings of anger, sadness, and worry, but since we’re all human beings, those emotions exist.  Those emotions have to go somewhere and so they “leak” out of us.  Usually in our facial expressions, but often in other ways, too.  We leak our anger and frustration by making sarcastic remarks or using put down humor or making biting remarks about colleagues behind their backs.  We leak happiness by forwarding emails about good consumer feedback or preparing slide shows about our progress against goals or having a small (shhhhhh) baby shower at lunch. 

By controlling or denying our emotions, we think we’re managing them carefully, when in fact we’re not.  We’re emoting all over the place, without much awareness of the impact on others – positive or negative.

Here’s another unintended consequence of the Emotion-Free Workplace: we can’t leverage our feelings to benefit the business.  Yes, that’s right – I said LEVERAGE our feelings!  As in “to exert power or influence in a way which gains a high return for a small investment”.  Our hurt or joy, our impatience and happiness could be leveraged in a truly productive way. Channeling your dissatisfaction and anger can help you to step up to conflict and deal more directly with a performance problem.  Recognizing and working with your frustration can help you engage in more fruitful and honest debate with colleagues who have different perspectives.  Cultivating empathy for consumers allows you to feel what they feel and helps you discover new ways to reach them.

So, I propose we start talking openly about Leadership and human emotion (I won’t go so far as to call them “feelings”).  Let’s teach leaders how to recognize and process their emotions so they can decide if and how to express them to engage, motivate and coach others.


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