The Business of Emotion

“That’s business” or “it’s just business”… how often do we hear that said in relation to some cold-blooded company decision someone has made?

Maybe a thousand people have just been laid off somewhere, or a supplier has just been replaced for a competitor. We almost unquestioningly accept that there is no room for emotion in business – yet emotion always finds a way in; now neuroscience is showing that emotion plays a bigger role in business than most of us care to admit.

Emotional Engagement

Take that “Death by PowerPoint” presentation you just sat through. All the facts were there and it was decently presented but won’t you have forgotten it in an hour? Why? Because you were not emotionally engaged. You didn’t feel anything – no excitement, no joy, no displeasure, no connection.

We are first and foremost human and our role as employees comes a distant second. The way our brains work means that, without this emotional connection, information tends not to be retained so easily.

Why do we remember where we were when Princess Diana died or when those planes went into the World Trade Centre? Both experiences were not only played over and over in the media and in our minds, but they were intensely emotional experiences for most.

Of course, ‘rational’ is fine sometimes, but if we want to create workplaces that encourage better performance then we must nurture the emotional side that is ever-present. Over-reliance on striving for the ‘rational’ makes Jack a dull boy…

Unengaged Employees

Part of the challenge of leadership in these Gen-Y times is to create workplaces that are engaging. This takes us beyond traditional MBA management thinking where the workplace is purely one of rational decision-making and a “that’s business” mindset.

Unengaged workplaces are where job satisfaction low, staff turnover is high, level of commitment to the company is non-existent, performance levels are no better than ordinary – does this sound familiar?

Turning this around is no easy feat – but the answer lies at the emotional level rather than in some aspired-for business paradise where everything is logical and rational and everyone makes decisions for the best. Needless to say, that doesn’t really exist.

Progressive companies like Google know this, and are already building working environments that allow for more innovative thinking, freedom of expression, connections with the company vision, and a feeling of contribution.

When people feel commitment and enjoyment in what they are doing they do it better and this generally filters through to customers.

The Emotion of Leadership

Leadership itself is heavily guided by emotional forces. Neuroscience has shown that the brain has two main systems – a primitive, limbic system that supports emotion, behavior, and long-term memory; and a ‘higher thinking’ system that is responsible for deeper thinking and ‘rational’ decision-making.

While everyone possesses both thinking systems, the relative influence of one over the other is important in determining our decisions and our behavior. Someone who is often working in a state of fear or stress will be governed more by their limbic system, which produces emotional responses that may appear almost like reflex actions; someone who is better able to remove themselves from the emotional state and find time for deeper thinking will be governed more by the second system. Leaders need to be adept at switching from one to the other as the situation demands it.

Those cries of “what was I thinking?” make more sense when we consider them in light of the above. Poor, irrational decisions that we have all made, and all been on the receiving end of at other times, are often the result of fear, stress, or other emotions that cloud our judgment.

Decisions are Impossible without Emotion

It is worth remembering that decisions made completely without emotion are a fallacy. Emotions are essentially signposts to a course of action – everything is filtered through our emotional and memory system. Tests have been done on people with damaged brains, and who are incapable of memories or feeling emotion – they are also incapable of making decisions.

So emotions are critical in business, just as they are in every other aspect of life. The rational, logical side plays an important role too, but not at the expense of emotions – alongside them.

With the emphasis in business on the rational, it is worth remembering that neuroscientists estimate that over 90 percent of our behaviour is generated outside of consciousness.


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