Our emotions at work are essential to our well-being and effectiveness, yet they also have the power to undermine us. Understanding where they come from and how to manage them can help all of us become happier and more effective.

Summary by The World of Work Project


Why do we have Emotions?

Emotions are life-savers. They physically and mentally prepare us for what our minds expect the future to hold. For example, fear moves our blood to large muscles so we can run more effectively to escape threats. Similarly, grief slows us down so we’re less likely to put ourselves in dangerous situations.

Emotions clearly play a vital role in our day to day lives. However, they can at times be unhelpful. More negative emotions like fear and anger can be hugely detrimental in the work place. This is because emotions like this make it hard to concentrate on tasks. They also increase the likelihood of individuals making decisions or taking actions they may later regret.

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Where do they Come From?

All of our thoughts and emotions are the result of our brain activity.

Our thinking and planning activities are controlled by part of the brain called the neocortex. It’s located towards the front of our brains. As its name suggests, it’s quite new, at least in evolutionary terms. This is the part of our brain that’s rational and help us logically work our way through problems.

A diagram of the brain helping to explain where Emotions at Work come from
The Limbic System By OpenStax College – Anatomy & Physiology, Connexions Web site. http://cnx.org/content/col11496/1.6/, Jun 19, 2013., CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30148029

Our emotional activities are controlled by a different and older part of our brains called the limbic system. It’s located towards the middle of our brains. The limbic system has several different parts to it, including the Amygdala and the Hippocampus. The Amygdala helps govern our emotions) and the Hippocampus helps with our memory.

Crudely speaking, our limbic system creates our emotions by reviewing input signals (sight, sound, smell, etc) and comparing them with our memories of similar sets of signals. If our limbic system matches our current signals with a prior memory, it will lead us to release hormones that will help us respond to that prior situation. Most of the time this is quite a subtle process. We don’t usually particularly notice our emotions and we can think and act rationally using our neocortex.

Sometimes though, our limbic system will match our current sensory input with negative prior memory. It might identify a threat, either physical or psychological (such as from the SCARF model). An example of a non physical threat could be receiving feedback that we don’t like.

If the limbic system identifies a threat it will start the brain’s threat response system. When this happens it becomes very hard to continue working well.

Emotions at Work

Knowing about our emotions helps us have a better understanding of why we’re feeling the way we’re feeling at any moment in time. This knowledge, in turn, helps us temper our actions and decisions, if we believe our emotions are leading us to behave irrationally or unhelpfully.

Of course, knowing about our emotions alone isn’t enough. Understanding why we have emotions and where they come from helps. But, if we are to become happier and more effective, we also need to be better at being aware of our own emotions. This awareness is known as “metamood“. We also need to get better at managing our emotions though improving our “emotional intelligence“.

Learning More

The brain is a fascinating thing and hugely affects our working experiences. The basics of brain anatomy may be helpful to be aware of. For example, sometimes our fight or flight response kicks in and overwhelms us. Similarly, the cognitive biases we have and our dual process ways of thinking might be of interest.

It’s worth noting that emotions can lead to social pain as well, which has similar impacts on the brain as physical pain. You can learn more about it in our podcast on the topic:

The World of Work Project View

In our view, emotions are one of the most important factors in well-being and happiness (which of course is an emotion), and in effectiveness.

We regularly have seen individuals and leaders who have a great level of underlying talent or ability, but who do not have the emotional understanding or self regulation required to work well with others. Where this is the case, they fail to fulfill their potential and are often frustrated in their work.

Increasingly, as more and more routine and process oriented tasks are automated, “softer” skills based on emotion are becoming more and more essential in the work place.

Understanding your emotions and developing as a person is a key part of any personal or leadership development program. We recommend that everyone invests time in this area.

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This post is based on work on emotional intelligence by Daniel Goleman, as published in his book: Emotional Intelligence. 

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