Emotions At Work: Understanding Ourselves as Non-Rational Beings

Emotions at work are a major stressor for many people. Understanding that we are really non-rational beings helps us improve our performance at work.

Much of my coaching work is centered directly or indirectly on emotions. Important to note that it is not necessarily emotional work but the process inherently makes one become more aware of emotions and the meaning that we make of them.

We humans are emotional creatures; we cannot operate, learn or be successful in relationships without accounting for emotions, and yet they are the least likely topic to be included in workplace discussions about performance, wellness, and effectiveness. The many tragic examples of our failure to manage emotions and emotional situations in the workplace are legion. Unmanaged emotions, especially when they are coupled with anxiety, depression, or high levels of persistent stress, can in the very least be counterproductive and in the worst case, be deadly.

Living as we do in a westernized civilization of the 21st century, it is difficult for us to comprehend and remain fully cognizant of the degree to which we are still governed by the reptilian brain, the oldest part of our neural-anatomy that governs fight, freeze, flight, and decision-making, and is essential to our processing of emotions. We have completely lost touch with, what I like to call, our inner mammal. We like to believe (especially at work) that we are rational, analytical, evolved beings but science is demonstrating there is more myth than fact in that idea. Research is calling into question our ability to rationally choose or make decisions; it appears that we have, what David Rock has called “free won’t”, instead of free will (Shermer, 2012).

“A new study found activity in a tiny clump of 256 neurons that enabled scientists to predict with 80 percent accuracy which choice a subject would make before the person himself knew. … free won’t is veto power over innumerable neural impulses tempting us to act in one way, such that our decision to act in another way is a real choice.” (Schermer, 2012) Much or even all of what we think we are rationally analyzing is the result of chemical processes and activation of brain circuits that have taken place in our bodies and minds below the level of conscious thought, prior to our conscious mind becoming aware of them. However exerting will power over a variety of urges is an example of acting with volition and choosing what path not to take, thus earning the label “free won’t”.

Our brains are shaped by our relationships. Most of our brains’ background processes involve thinking about ourselves and other people. From an evolutionary perspective it makes sense. We have evolved to live in social groups – in families and other societal structures – therefore a great deal of our brain is devoted to managing relationships. The prolonged dependence we have upon parents and other family members for survival, demands that we develop social skills to manage the complexities of interaction and the stressors associated with living in groups. These skills are what evolve into our personal survival strategies.

Most of the body language and non-verbal social communication that humans have developed over the millennia act below the level of our consciousness. The unspoken and often unconscious ritual behaviours that we exhibit are designed to minimize the perception of threats and maximize the reward opportunities. Hand-shaking, eye contact, the avoidance of eye contact, smiling, head nodding, and the various body positions we unconsciously assume in public spaces such as elevators or cafes or public transit, are examples of socially motivated behaviours that are designed to act as short-hand signaling “I am not a threat”. Likewise, body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice can also indicate the reverse – “don’t mess with me. I am not feeling friendly right now” or as Dirty Harry put it: “do you feel lucky today punk?”

Talking about emotions is useful; it reduces the impact on us of physical processes such as the amygdala response (Rock & Page, Coaching With the Brain in Mind: Foundations for Practice, 2009). If one tries to suppress emotional arousal, the limbic system (the seat of emotion in the brain) stays at the same high level of arousal or gets worse. A high level of arousal diminishes cognitive function, reduces field of vision, creates more threat responses, limits comprehension of input about what other people are saying, and negatively impacts the ability to process information. In addition, suppressing emotions makes blood pressure spike and will likely make other people emotionally uncomfortable (affect contagion), though they may be unaware of the reaction they are having, or why (Rock, Managing with the Brain in Mind, Autumn 2009).

In the workplace, where we are usually being paid to make logical decisions on a consistent basis, it seems to be counter-productive to stifle one’s feelings and pretend that everything is good and yet that is a common strategy we employ and are told implicitly or explicitly to employ. Have often have you heard the message that emotions don’t belong at work?

Working in an environment that is fraught with stress from change initiatives, from aggressive or acting-out behaviour in someone in your group, or from a poor match between you and the organizational culture can create high impacts in our lives – emotionally, mentally, and ultimately physically.

This is where knowing your own emotional intelligence strengths and opportunities (EQ or emotional quotient) can be your biggest ally in keeping yourself well balanced in the face of daunting or challenging situations. Aside from the emotional, mental, and physical symptoms that you might experience while trying to manage stressful challenges, there is another even more profound and often missed symptom – one’s self esteem starts to erode. Our coping strategies often lead us to assigning blame and frequently we can unconsciously be assigning blame to ourselves.

  • “I didn’t handle that (interaction) very well. “
  • “Why can’t I shake this feeling of anxiety?”
  • “What is wrong with me?”
  • “I must be losing my touch!”
  • “I am incompetent!”

EQ is something that can be learned and improved upon. Understanding one’s own EQ profile is an essential skill as part of a performance improvement program to develop greater resilience and emotional intelligence in any workplace. Self-esteem is a very important building block when it comes to healthy emotional intelligence and the capacity to navigate stressful conditions in life.

If you are currently taking a hit to your self esteem or feeling more stressed than you are comfortable living with, feel free to contact me to discuss some options.  You can book time with me for a complimentary and fully confidential session to discuss your questions and goals, no strings attached.