Emotions at Work

Why are emotions so scary to so many people—especially in the workplace? The leaders I know are usually extremely wary of going into that confusing world.  

It’s ironic, because both leaders and front-line performers alike are yearning for people to come to work bringing things like loyalty, compassionate listening, urgency for action, strong commitment, the ability to generate care for internal and external  customers, and passion for the job. If these aren’t emotions, I don’t know what  would be. So what’s the problem? Let’s start by looking at what emotions actually ARE.


At the physical level, the world of material reality, as my friend, Mark Yeoell, likes to say, ‘E-motions are simply energy-in-motion with a label attached.’ Take the label away—like ‘fear’, ‘joy’, ‘sadness’—and all you have are physiological things happening in the body.  

What’s interesting is that the same physiological phenomena can get connected to very different emotional labels. Tears, for instance can be a sign of sadness, but they can also be a manifestation of great joy, or even anger. To make it even clearer, suppose you are waiting at the train station for someone. Your blood pressure and heart rate are slightly elevated, your breathing is shallow, and your pupils are dilated.  

What is the exact emotion? We can’t tell from what is happening in the body. We need the context to find out which ‘label’ is appropriate. If you are meeting your beloved, it is excitement or anticipation. If you are meeting someone from your family and you have just lost a loved one, the emotion would likely be (labeled)  sadness or grief. Same physiology—different emotions.

The Label’s The Thing. . .

It’s actually the label that becomes the problem with emotions, not the energy moving in the body—which, as we have seen, is simply energy-moving-in-the-body.  So, what are the available labels waiting to be applied?  

Over the years, including many as a therapist and now personal development coach to men and women in difficult situations, I have developed a short list of what I believe are the basic five emotional labels available to us. (There are many more, but, if you look closely, you will see that they are derivative of these five.)

The Big Five Emotional States (‘Labels’)

Mad This ranges from mild irritation or annoyance to uncontrollable rage.

Sad The range: Mild sadness to sobbing and uncontrollable grieving.

Glad The range: Simple joy to uncontrollable ecstasy.

Scared The range: Concern, then on to anxiety, and then to uncontrollable  terror. 

Close The range: ‘I feel good around you’ to ‘Let’s make love.’ 

What makes these emotions (labels) so problematical, in part, is their capriciousness. They seem to come and go as they please, regardless of what we wish or want. We are in a meeting, a colleague starts to speak about a hot, new idea of theirs, we hear the faint signs of a piece of our own work—which is not being acknowledged—and off we go. Our heart starts to speed up, our pupils dilate, our breathing gets shallow (the getting-ready-for-action response), and we are ‘hooked’ by our emotions. What has just happened?

The Human Brain: Label-Maker and/or Threat-Avoider

When you got mad—or whenever you get really any-of-the-above—this is what happens in your brain:

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At the moment your colleague started to speak and you caught the first signs of ‘upset’, the label was not present, there was only the experience. The all-powerful label would be created via a brain-based process a nano-second later. 

First the sensory data comes in (visual, auditory, kinesthetic) and is routed to the thalamus, a tiny, but all-powerful organ at the very center of the brain. The thalamus acts as a kind of ‘air traffic controller’ to steer the neurons in the right direction, directing the neurological impulses to the brain’s cortex for processing. 

As Joshua Freedman describes it, the cortex ‘thinks’ quickly about the impulse and decides what it means. ‘Aha! My colleague is taking advantage of me.’ That information is then sent to the amygdala, where a flood of peptides and hormones are released which create emotion and action in the body—depending on the interpretation of what is happening.

The Amygdala: Our Auto-Pilot

A colleague taking credit for one of your ideas is not exactly life-threatening— although it may feel like it at the time. But in the case of a true emergency, the thalamus instantly reacts to the potential threat, and completely bypasses the cortex—the thinking brain—altogether. In this case, the signal is sent straight to the amygdala. 

Now the fun begins, because the amygdala can’t really think about what is happening; it can only react based on previously stored patterns. As a result of early programming —your ‘Pre-Adult Legacy’ in the words of Otto Laske (thank you, Jean Ogilvie for this bit of info)—the amygdala ‘knows’ what threats look like, as well as moments that deserve joy or sadness. 

When one of those ‘Big Five’ emotional states listed above shows up at a level of intensity that goes beyond its threshold of “normal” or “safe”, the amygdala takes over the whole process and drives your body into action. As you can see, your interpretation—itself a result of early programming—essentially determines what the amygdala does. 

What has happened in your meeting with the colleague is what Dan Goleman calls The Hijacking of the Amygdala. And because the amygdala is located in the reptilian (the oldest) section of the brain, my therapist friend used to say, ‘John, your lizard is running you now.’ Like an airplane’s auto-pilot, the next few minutes (six, actually, if we can trust the research) are guided and are very difficult to change.

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The Saber-Toothed Tiger Situation (OK, it’s not a SABER-TOOTHED Tiger. . .)

Sometimes this kind of amygdala-driven reaction can save our lives. Remember the well-known saber-tooth tiger analogy? It says if we came upon one today—even though they have been extinct for thousands of years—our amygdala would instantly recognize it for what it was, and move us to get out of danger with absolutely no ‘thinking’ required. 
In the workplace context, an amygdala hijacking leads us to one of these responses (I have expanded on the traditional binary fight or flight reactions): 

1. Flight—or in the workplace, disengage 
2. Fight—or engage to protect or defend 
3. Freeze—the deer-in-the-headlights phenomenon 
4. Figure out—analyze quickly what is causing the threat 
5. Fix—handle the threat

Why are we so afraid of emotions at work—or anyplace, for that matter? Here’s a summary: 

• Emotions are unpredictable. We don’t like that! 
• The same energy moving in our body can ‘mean’ several things, depending on the context. This makes emotions difficult to ‘get right’ for us and those around us. 
• It’s the ‘label’ that makes the difference—and the labeling process seems to be out of our direct control. 
• Emotions can—and often do—take us over completely. Nobody wants to be out of control—at work especially. 
• When it comes to emotions, we are at the effect of our early programming, which determines our current reactions to situations. 
• No wonder we are so afraid of emotions. . . They seem to ‘run’ us and appear to be beyond our influence. But maybe not. . .

Stay tuned for what we can actually DO to get self-control back during and after that six-second total-system blast from the amygdala. (It turns out that Gramma’s advice to ‘When you are angry, count to ten’ is brilliant guidance.)

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