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What role do emotions play in business?

“I wear my heart on my sleeve” sang the Scottish seventies duo, Gallagher and Lyle. Is that level of transparency appropriate at work? What place do emotions have in business? Are they helpful or harmful? Wearing your heart on your sleeve is often misconstrued as your emotions being out of control. In truth, it means to openly show your emotions, to be transparent, to be true to yourself. The musical duo continued: “I’m not afraid to say what I mean, mean what I say”, advocating emotional honesty as the best policy.

emotions play in business

Emotional outbursts are rarely constructive. Excesses of any emotional hue usually indicate a lack of control. Unpredictable behaviour, usually emotional in nature, also has a destabilising effect at work. High scores on the emotional Richter scale are a no-no in business.

Here Ally Yates, the author of ‘Utter Confidence: How what you say and do influences your effectiveness in business’ explains the roles emotions play in business.

A psychologically safe working environment

Amy Edmondson’s research has shown the importance of creating a working environment which is ‘psychologically safe.’ This is an environment where people can speak openly without fear of negative repercussions. This includes voicing hopes and fears, reservations and desires. There is a bedrock of trust that exists between the co-workers and between workers and bosses. The improved atmosphere leads to greater employee engagement, increased learning from one another, and better team innovation.

A senior manager was recently talking to me about a change of boss. The outgoing boss had created the psychologically safe environment. As a consequence, each member of the team operated with candour and respect. Any conflict was creative in nature, enabling them to work through the disagreements together and arrive at a resolution that each and every team member could support. I asked: “How do you feel about the new boss?” The answer was: “He’s very different in nature. He’s a ‘yes’ man and he’s out for himself. I can’t be as open with him.” The manager’s inherent distrust was insidiously building barriers that would negatively impact his effectiveness at work.

Inspirational influence and leadership

Truly effective leaders appeal to people’s emotions. Throughout history, figures like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther-King are often cited for the power of their oration, winning both hearts and minds. Indeed, research by Falbe and Yukl showed this inspirational form of influence results in 90% commitment, 10% compliance and 0% resistance. Compare that with the results of the Legitimating style, where a leader uses his power to enforce: 0% commitment, 56% compliance, 44% resistance. Emotions win outright if engagement matters in your business.

More recently, Neuroscientist Tali Sharot, in her book “The Influential Mind”, demonstrates how emotions have a much bigger impact on us than reason and data, challenging some of our most firmly-held beliefs about how to influence others.

Feelings commentary and open behaviour

If you want to cut to the bottom line, Rackham’s investigations into negotiations revealed two expressive behaviours that the successful negotiators used: Feelings Commentary and Open. Feelings Commentary is defined as: “an expression of your feelings about the current situation or work in progress”. For example: “I’m uncomfortable that we haven’t explored all the possibilities”, “I’m excited about the progress we’re making.” Open behaviour is “non-defensive admissions of mistakes or inadequacies”, for example, “I don’t think I have the answers here.”

Humility in leadership

In his seminal work “Good to Great”, Jim Collins describes the factors that differentiate great companies from their less successful market comparators. One of these factors is ‘Level 5 Leadership’, where the leaders of great companies are described as having a ‘paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.’ The humility is characterised as mild-mannered and understated. These leaders are happy to share their shortcomings. Contrary to macho opinion, humility is not a sign of weakness.

Low reactors

Many leaders create a steely or somewhat aloof façade in an attempt to keep their emotions hidden. Known as ‘Low Reactors’, they believe that keeping the lid on their emotions will prevent any weaknesses or vulnerabilities from seeping out. However, a low reacting leader or manager in business can cause a multitude of negative consequences: failure to recognise achievement or effort; difficulty building rapport; appearing detached and indifferent; creating anxiety in others; delaying decision-making because people are uncertain of their position. They can create a sense of distance between themselves and other employees, negatively impacting on their perceived trustworthiness.

Hidden feelings and negativity

Don’t kid yourself. No matter how hard you may try to conceal your anger, frustration, joy, or surprise, these emotions leak out. Our brain, designed to protect us from real or perceived threat, acts like an early warning detection mechanism, picking up on the emotional climate. Sometimes too, it’s possible to perceive non-verbal signs of how someone’s feeling, despite them stating the contrary: the boss whose face is reddening and whose hands are wringing, calmly stating: “Everything is fine.”

Emotions that are labelled ‘negative’, for example, fear and distrust are often natural human reactions. Think of any change project you’ve been involved in, whether as an agent or a victim, and you will have experienced resistance. That’s normal. Our brains are pattern-recognition systems and altering the nature of the pattern will be met with varying degrees of challenge. To facilitate the change, leaders need to help their people to successfully make the psychological transition from what is to what will be. This starts with giving people the opportunity to express their sense of loss before moving on to new beginnings.

Creating a fulfilling work environment

Henry Stewart, creator of “The Happy Manifesto – Make your organisation a great place to work” believes that people do their best work when they feel good about themselves. Therefore, the role of a leader is to create a positive, fulfilling work environment. And with good reason, since those businesses enjoying ‘best places to work’ status outperform on return on investment compared with their peers.

Emotions are contagious. A boss that rules with an iron fist is likely to create a climate of compliance and fear that’s terrible to work in and where few can give their best. The tone can spread as fast as dengue fever, contaminating more and more employees. Contrast that with a boss who looks to make the workplace more honest, more exciting and more fulfilling. The benefits are widespread, both within the business and without.

These days, more and more employees expect to have a form of connection with their bosses. People need people. Successful leaders connect with employees directly, personally and emotionally, gaining loyalty and commitment in return.

More on emotional intelligence and growing your business.

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