Does emotion have a place in business?

By Ally Yates, author of ‘Utter Confidence: How what you say and do influences your effectiveness in business’

Let’s face it, emotional outbursts are rarely constructive. Excess of any emotion usually indicates a lack of control. Unpredictable behaviour, usually emotional in nature, also has a destabilising effect at work.

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

I was talking to a senior manager recently about a change of boss. The previous boss had created that psychologically safe environment. Consequently, each member of the team operated with openness and respect. Any conflict was creative in nature, so they could work through the disagreements together and arrive at a resolution that each and every team member could support. When 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.

Effective leaders do appeal to people’s emotions. Historically, figures like Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela are oft cited for the power of their oration, winning 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.

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

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”, e.g. “I don’t think I have the answers here.”

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.

In an attempt to keep their emotions hidden, many leaders create a steely or somewhat aloof façade. Known as ‘Low Reactors’, they believe that keeping the lid on their feelings 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: difficulty building rapport; appearing detached and indifferent; creating anxiety in others; failure to recognise achievement or effort; 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.

And, no matter how hard you 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’, fear and distrust, for example, 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.

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 infectious. 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.

Increasingly, 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.



Ally Yates is author of ‘Utter Confidence: How what you say and do influences your effectiveness in business’ and an expert on Behaviour Analysis and the interactions that define us. She combines a deep understanding of people and how to achieve results, based on her many years’ experience working with large corporate clients around the world.

Since 2000 Ally has been working as an independent consultant, facilitator, trainer and coach. She has collaborated with international business schools and has received national and international training awards.





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