During a recent workshop, I was having a lively discussion with managers from various companies about how they navigate the emotional states of their employees. It is no secret that managers can play the role of therapist as often as they play the role of boss. In the old days, managers used to assume that employees left their personal issues out of the picture and just did their jobs. The truth is, it is impossible for people to be productive unless their heart is in the work. Sure, you can push through for a while, but if your emotional state is in the dumps, the outcome will be marginal and uninspired. So understanding how emotions affect decision making, cooperation, innovative thinking, and cognitive function is good information for any professional.
It was a nice coincidence that I had just finished reading a book on the subject. I volunteer recording books on tape for the blind, which means I am exposed to many books I would not otherwise read. And, since I select only from the non-fiction options, very often the books I record turn out to be great tools for a business owner such as myself. The most recent book was How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. The author, Lisa Feldman Barrett, discussed research that suggests that people don’t react emotionally as we once assumed. Without getting too deep into details, most emotions are not the result of the brain reacting to a situation. Instead, the brain predicts which emotion will be appropriate for the situation, and then corrects its emotional state based on input that follows. The trouble with this process is, once the brain makes its emotional prediction, it is hard for it to change course based on new input. Essentially, once we are angry, we stay angry even if we discover there is no reason to be.
Because our brains can so easily go down the wrong emotional path, and it is so difficult to course-correct once they do, Barrett advises people to increase their emotional granularity. Emotional granularity is the ability to make distinctions between different emotional states. Since different emotions can have different causes, knowing exactly which emotion you are experiencing can help you avoid being an emotional puppet on a string. So, instead of just “being mad,” are you frustrated (caused by repeated failure to achieve a goal)? Disappointed (caused by a positive experience being denied)? Resentful (belief that someone else is the cause of your problem)? Or angry (caused by a value of yours not being respected). All these emotional states are unpleasant, but they are not at all the same, and each needs a different approach to find a resolution. By the same token, there is a difference between feeling elated, joyful, relieved, or giddy. These are all pleasant emotions, but caused by different experiences.
Note that I used the words pleasant and unpleasant instead of positive and negative when referring to the emotions above. If you consider emotions positive or negative, you limit your ability to manage a situation. While some emotional states might feel unpleasant, they are still part of the Ying-Yang balancing act of the brain. All emotions, pleasant and unpleasant, are necessary to a functioning brain. An emotional only has a negative impact if it is too prolonged, or causes a person to engage in unhealthy behavior. Managers who are uncomfortable dealing with unpleasant emotions are more likely to try to suppress them in others. This often leads to the other person feeling even worse, and not connecting well with that manager in the future.
So what does all this have to do with business? A lot. The more research that is conducted on the brain, especially in the field of decision making, the more we realize that humans make almost every decision based on emotion. This fact has been known, and employed by, sales professionals for hundreds of years. And the marketing industry follows the axiom, people buy with emotion and justify with fact. But emotional states guide much more of the brain’s processing that just buying a car or choosing a movie to watch. Emotions affect teamwork, customer satisfaction, manager-employee relationships, and employee retention. A brain’s emotional state affects its executive function (decision making, planning, and negotiating), and creative thinking. Understanding how the brain constructs emotions as a result of its perception of the world is crucial to managing people, not just selling to them.
Customers report higher satisfaction when a service rep “really seems to understand my problem.” This can’t happen if a service rep lumps every disgruntled customer into the Upset column. If I call a company help line and hear, “We’re so sorry for the inconvenience,” I don’t feel heard, I feel patronized. Sometimes I am inconvenienced, other times I feel frustrated, or frightened, or disappointed. If the language of the person serving me reflected that they really knew how I felt, my loyalty to that company would grow. Beyond customer service, when people feel that others really understand them, they work better together and remain part of a team longer.
If managers and business leaders developed a higher degree of emotional granularity in their own lives, they would have a better command over situations and employees. As with any situation, you can’t develop a good resolution until you have accurately defined it. And getting to the heart of someone’s emotional state helps avoid offering the wrong solution. In the future, when you feel an emotion, put a specific label on it. Go beyond happy and sad. Increase your emotional granularity (you might want to use Thesaurus.com) and expand your emotional horizons.
Instead of fearing unpleasant emotional states at work, fearing emotions all together, or lumping good and bad emotions into one big lump; accurately identifying emotions, and getting to the real cause, is a great first step to using the emotional brain we all have to work better together.
Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management. He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or firstname.lastname@example.org.