Understanding Emotion

When I used to teach introductory psychology to college students, I would begin each semester by asking them "What is the purpose of emotions? "Typically, some students saw emotions as something they didn't understand and would rather not deal with. Others pointED out how emotions enrich our lives and allow us to appreciate life and beauty.

I would then introduce some theories about whether thoughts create emotions or emotions create thoughts. We journeyed on to the rest of the semester's curriculum, with that being the sum total understanding of emotions.

Throughout the six years I trained as a Ph.D. clinical psychologist, we didn't talk much about emotions either. We read studies about how emotions impact people, and how medications and talk therapy affect emotions.

We considered the neurobiological aspect of emotions, particularly chemicals in our brain such as serotonin, dopamine and other neurotrans­mitters. But emotions themselves? Not much discussion.

It wasn't much different in the various places I've worked. There was almost never a discussion about emotions in any of my advanced professional or management training. During 21 months of study for an MBA, I counted perhaps five or six minutes in total spent discussing emotions.

This is astounding to me. Everyone has emotions, but hardly any of us ever gets any education or training about what they are and how they work -especially in business. This is why I now teach, train, consult, write this blog and publish podcasts about the role of emotions in successful organizations.

Because there is really a very simple explanation about what emotions are for and why they matter: Emotions drive behavior. They're the reasons we form primary relationships.

They are often the reasons that we work hard at something, whether it's out of a sense of obligation, the sense of social connectedness, or a strong desire to change the world. They can also spur usto get out of bad situations and make our lives better.

Just as important, emotions drive the behavior that determines our performance at our jobs, such as when a salesperson develops an emotional connection with a customer that helps close a sale, or a supervisor connects with employees in a way that motivates them. Or it can be negative. As in disgruntled people who complain and poison the work environment for others, or an angry employee who actually sabotages company efforts.

In general, there are three primary ways that people respond to their emotions.

The first and overriding approach to emotions in western culture is to repress them, because as my psychology students pointed out, they confuse us and get in the way. Best to stuff them back down. If I don't acknowledge that I'm pissed off at my boss, or that something about my job is all wrong, I'll be able to function better.


The second approach is the opposite: we should express our emotions freely. The mental health profession has been pivotal in propagating this idea. If we simply communicate what we're feeling, then we will be healthier and lead happier lives.

Unfortunately, that result isn't guaranteed. Both the science of neurology and the eastern tradition of mindfulness teach us that when we put our attention on emotions, we magnify them. So if we are focusing on how upset we are, we're going to be more upset.

Although it's true that expressing emotions in a healthy manner can reduce stress and strengthen relationships, even the most successful workplaces are not intended for people to come in and randomly express emotions. In the right context, doing so can be productive. Out of context it can be confusing and get in the way.

The third approach to emotions is more an outlier. This approach is to simply experience emotions without either pushing them down or pushing them out onto others. According to the principles of meditation and mind­fulness, we should experience, observe and accept our emotions without judging them or trying to necessarily do anything about them.

This is far harder to do than it is to say, but people who experience it even briefly marvel at how differently they feel afterward.

Shifting to the workplace, I have seen three general approaches, two of which are going to sound familiar.

The traditional approach in most workplaces is that you leave your personal life at the door when you get to work. This includes your emotions. The implicit bargain is that when you leave at the end of the day, work stays in the workplace. But that's no longer true for millions of us.

We are expected to take work home with us - the emails, texts, reports to read and phone calls to join - and somehow it's not supposed to interfere with our connections to our spouses, kids, friends and communities.

The amount of work stress that people bring home is so notable that some business leaders have recognized a boomerang effect: it's affecting people's productivity when they are at work.

A second approach is to encourage communication of certain emotions but not others. This too is common in organizational life. Companies value feelings of teamwork, ambition, loyalty and happiness. But fear, frustration, or worry about the working environment? All those still stay at the door, as if they don't exist, rather than being utilized to evolve the workplace experience in a better direction.

Yet once we are judging our emotions and whether it's safe to communicate them, we are probably not channeling emotional energy toward innovation or teamwork or other enterprise goals.

The third approach that's endemic in Western culture is that we should over­come our emotions. Instead of stifling emotions without a glance, or selecting the approved ones, this approach treats emotions as fleeting experiences that we can disconnect from, so that we can rise above them.

The fatal flaw in this approach is that we fail to utilize a powerful motivator. Remember, emotions drive behavior. We might be able to stop ourselves from thinking about them, but that doesn't mean they're gone - or that we've communicated anything constructive that would make our workplace healthier.

And what if our emotions are positive? Are we supposed to "transcend" the loyalty and ambition that drives us to work 16 hours a day? Not at any succ­essful venture I have encountered.

So how else could we deal with emotions?

From my experience, the most promising approach is first acknowledging and then experiencing our emotions fully, without attaching meaning or judgment to them. We don't need to repress emotions or express every one of them.

We don't have to distance ourselves from emotions by intellectualizing them. We can deal with emotions intelligently and creatively, just as we use our intelligence and creativity to excel at work.


Daniel Goleman is widely credited with introducing the concept of emotional intelligence and its importance. Other skillful writers and teachers are carrying this concept into the workplace. In their book, "The 15 Commit­ments of Conscious Leadership," Jim Dethemer and Diana Chapman discuss how emotions are teaching us something.

Specific emotions correlate to knowledge, to wisdom, to insights that we can use. To gain the lesson, we have to experience and explore our emotions freely.

So how do managers and how do organizations create emotionally safer workplaces? How do they begin to utilize emotions in a more productive, more constructive manner?

There is no one "Aha!" that makes everything change overnight. Emotional safety must be authentic to function at all, so it has to be lived by leaders first. Initiating daily huddles, sharing obstacles, acknowledging frustrations is a great way of opening up the valves so people get comfortable expressing feelings of any kind.

Coming together after milestone events where people gather and celebrate what they've achieved together. They can share their pride. They can share the stories of what went wrong and their aspirations for the future.

Keith Alper is a serial entrepreneur from the Midwest who has founded and led six media and branding agencies and received more than 200 industry awards.

He decided to change his management policies so that people felt more free and empowered, consequently utilizing their emotions to drive innovation.

Creativity could be excited and joyful, not just methodical.

It was okay to be frustrated when clients didn't like the presentation or a media test bombed. This created its own boomerang, but a positive one. People began reporting that their relationships at home were much healthier, which made them less distracted and more productive at work.

Alper was so struck by this that he added a novel key performance indicator, or KPI, to reflect it: reduction in the number of employee divorces as a result of changing of management policies.

Another powerful approach for creating an emotionally healthier work­space is to channel emotional energy into a higher purpose or greater goal, the organization's "why." Again this has to be authentic.


When it works, people feel more connected, which is one of the most primal of all human emotions. When people feel this way, so-called "negative" emotions don't completely disappear.

The difference is that people are not focusing on them.They're focusing on something more important, something that benefits them, the customers, the company, the shareholders. Constructive suggestions far outweigh grievances.

If this is what you imagine for your team or company, then understanding emotions, and creating a safe space for people to experience them, can help you a much smarter manager of the people your success depends on.