Emotions at Work

What to Do About Them?

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. 


As my friend, Mark Yeoell, likes to say, ‘At level of the world of physical reality, ‘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 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 Makes All the Difference. . .

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 leaders in difficult situations, I have developed a short list of what I believe are the basic five emotional labels available to us as human beings. (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: From mild sadness to sobbing and uncontrollable grieving.
GLAD The range: From simple joy to uncontrollable ecstasy. 
SCARED The range: From concern, to anxiety, to uncontrollable terror.
CLOSE The range: ‘I feel comfortable around you’ to ‘Let’s make love.’

What makes these emotions (labels) so problematic, in part, is their capriciousness. They just 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 get mad—or feel any-of-the-above emotions—this is what is happening 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 an experience in your body. 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’, directing the neurological impulses to the brain’s cortex for processing.

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 tell me, ‘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 very difficult to change. 

WiserAtWork Leadership Suggestion 

The next time you become ‘hooked’, that is, find yourself at the mercy of some emotion, take a few seconds (six will do, actually) to ask yourself, ‘What is really happening here? What is the threat—if any, in the real world, and what would be a more rational (and possibly more effective) way of responding?

If you are interested in more on this fascinating and important subject, look up Joshua Freedman’s work on-line. WiserAtWork will also be sending more related material your way soon.

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