First steps for understanding emotions at work

When I started working after graduating as a young psychologist, I was full of excitement. How fascinating it was to really enter the world of grown-ups and give my input to the world! As I was invited to team meetings, I was thrilled. We would be discussing important stuff and making important decisions. But quite soon I started to realize something strange.

An amazing pattern
It’s actually quite amazing. I soon learned the typical pattern in meetings: One person is speaking, another is pretending to listen, and the rest are staring at their computers and mobile phones, checking emails and doing who knows what. We talk about something that should be important, but it is obvious that there is no enthusiasm, no curiosity, no passion. There is no emotion. Or if there is, it is not something you would want to have in a meeting – frustration, boredom, anxiety, fear of shame.

What was really stunning for me was to notice that this is not seen as something strange. People are so used to it that they consider it as something very normal. No one seems to pay any attention to this emotional climate. It is like there is a huge elephant in the room, but everyone is pretending it is not there. We behave like emotions would not be an important part of the equation. But they are.

It is not a matter of opinion
I really started to wonder – why is it that we ignore the emotions? Why do we not address this issue in any way? Well, I didn’t either. I was wise enough to understand that talking about emotions in a wrong way would make me look foolish, and it might actually make people feel awkward, annoyed, or embarrassed. So I remained quiet about it. But I started to learn about emotions. And boy – did I learn!

I learned that emotions have an impact on everything we do, starting from our perceptions, decisions, memory, and ending up in social interactions, energy levels, and even company wide performance. It is really not a matter of opinion – emotions have a crucial impact on our performance. This is a research-backed fact, whether you admit it or not.

You can’t deal with something you don’t understand
Of course, most of us would want to work in a positive, excited, supporting emotional climate. But how do we create such a climate? One obvious fact is that you cannot deal with something you do not understand, or do not even see exists. If you want to lead the emotional climate, you first need to understand what emotions are, what kinds of emotions there are, what causes them, how they work, and how they impact our performance.

Three things you need to learn
Emotions skills are fully learnable. There are basically three things you need to learn:

  1. Learn to pay attention to emotions. For example, if you’re sitting in a meeting, ask yourself: “How am I feeling right now, at this very moment?” Listen to your inner world. Then look at other people in the meeting – what are the emotions they might be experiencing? Do you see smiles, laughter, or sad faces? Do you hear frustrated sighs and grunts? Curious glances?
  2. Learn about emotions. Rather than saying “I feel good / bad / neutral”, learn about the many, many different emotions that are evoked by different conditions, which all have very different impacts on our thinking, energy, and performance. Some emotions increase our energy levels (e.g. fear, anger, enthusiasm, pride), whereas others reduce our energy levels (e.g. sadness, contentment). Some emotions broaden our thinking (e.g. excitement, amusement), whereas others make our scope more narrow (e.g. fear, anxiety). Some will make us more social (e.g. enthusiasm, compassion), while others make us withdraw from social interactions (e.g. shame, disgust). It will take some effort from you to learn about emotions, but if you do so, it will change your life. You will see the world in a new way.
  3. Learn emotion skills. They are learnable. And actually, you have a lot of them already. Think about this: If you wanted to make someone feel bad, could you do it? I’m sure you could, and it would not even be difficult. How about other way around: if you wanted to make someone feel good, would you be able to do it? Well, I’m sure you can think of many ways to make another smile. So you have many emotion skills already!

But how about this: If you want to contribute to your organization’s emotional climate by handling your own emotions constructively, can you do that? If you wanted people to feel good at your workplace, could you do it? If you wanted to create a flourishing emotional climate in your organization, do you have the skills needed for that? This is where it many people get uneasy, as if it would be somehow very different at workplaces. Of course things can get more complicated in large organizations, but you probably do have many emotion skills that you are not using maximally. And of course, there are plenty of skills you can still learn.

Dead meeting revisited
To put these three steps into practice in the “dead” meeting we started with, you could try something in this direction: You would pay attention to the emotions. You would immediately notice the lack of excitement, and you could sense the uneasiness in yourself. Maybe it is frustration, maybe it is fear? You could pause and think: what is causing frustration? What is threatening me?

You would also notice the emotions of others; maybe they are feeling the same as you? You would understand that nothing significant happens if there is no emotional energy to fuel actions. Then you might say: “Hey, there is something important I want to talk about.” This unexpected statement might surprise others and get them curious. You would have their attention (by the way, people are usually extremely interested in emotions, if you just start talking about them constructively). Then you could say: “I’m wondering what is taking place in our meeting. We are all spending our valuable time here and talking about important topics, but it seems to me we are emotionally dead. I don’t think any one of us is excited or interested, I see no smiles, no good questions, no passion. I wonder why it is like this. Are we talking about wrong topics, are we doing it in a wrong way, or is there something else we should be aware of? Any thoughts around this?” Then you could wait in silence and see what happens. If this succeeds, you might be in for the best discussion in a long, long time.