3 Scientific reasons why emotions do not belong in the workplace
Updated: Feb 20
Emotions outside the house are a tricky business, and sometimes a little bit icky and sticky. Feelings are generally cast out as having very little use in adult society, except at weddings, funerals, and movies. There are some grey areas like sports games, the birth of your firstborn, or maybe an anniversary. Work, however, is a complete and absolute no-go zone for your feelings. Leave them at the door please. They are not wanted and science tells us why.
1. Emotions get in the way of decision-making
In the words of Ayn Rand "Emotions are not tools of cognition. They tell you nothing about the nature of reality." Neuroscience in the 20th century has supported these philosophical ideas with the view that cognition (thinking) is separate from emotions (feelings). And since 'thinking' and 'doing' are the main tasks at a work-place, emotions are just kind of irrelevant at best but mostly an obstacle.
2. Psychopaths make great leaders
The common view is that a good leader should be cold-blooded. For example, a general leading his soldiers into battle might have to make sacrifices for the greater good. Being a big crying baby about the situation will probably get everybody killed. Studies also showed that people with psychopathic traits are more likely to attain leadership positions and are rated higher as leaders (especially by the other psychopaths, I mean leaders). Interestly, this is only true for men. Female leaders with psychopathic traits are actually rated as poorer leaders than their non-psychopathic counter-parts. Roundly concluding that the workplace is no place for feelings - if you're a man.
3. Emotions are a sign of weakness
Much like frowning or fast-paced walking or long silent pauses, not showing feelings suggests that you have developed a higher mental capacity. And you are probably incredibly important. Showing emotions generally suggests a lack of control. Nobody ever did any research to show this because it is just too obvious. But what we also know is that the last thing anybody wants on their team is someone who can't get a grip.
At this point you might realise I do not believe any of this. But this perspective of emotions at work is disturbingly recent. Thankfully, that is changing, and employers are starting to recognize that employees have feelings and thats ok. What is refreshing is that current scientific research also supports this shift to embrace emotions at work.
1. Emotions are necessary for rational decision-making
In the past 2 decades, neuroscientific methodology has advanced greatly and with that we now understand that emotion and cognition (thinking) are intextricably linked. In fact, recent research suggests that emotions play a central role in higher cognitive activities.
Professor Antonio Damasio is a cognitive neuroscientist whose work has demonstrated that emotions play a key role in decision-making, although unconsciously. Reasoning or rationalising a problem can potentially go on forever, as multiple possibilities, outcomes, or theories can arise. What eventually directs us towards making a decision from this rationalization comes from our emotions. In fact, people who have impaired emotional capacities can only make decisions when directed to do so. For the rest of us, we can independently make a decision through unconscious emotional direction.
2. Emotions are the foundation of leadership
Emotions are an inseparable part of humanity, and what it means to be alive. Some of the most prolific and influential leaders of our time (Ghandi, Martin luther King) have openly expressed emotions. Emotions are also the glue that binds followers to leaders and vice versa, like in most relationships.
While rational motivations for following your leader do exist (promise of promotion, success, money etc), irrational motivations have been shown to be just as powerful in activating your followers (employees) towards leaders' vision. Think about it. Who are the greatest influencers or leaders of your childhood? Before you were driven by material gain that is. The influencers who tapped into your emotional needs. Many of them are writers, poets, painters, musicians or entrepreneurs. Great leadership is not about control - especially not in the beginning. It is about connecting emotionally.
3. You cannot switch off or out-think an emotion anyway
Sorry about that. Its not actually possible.
Emotional reactions are underpinned by the release of neuroransmitters in response to external stimuli. You do not have control over that. You cannot switch off emotional reactions anymore than you could ask your heart to stop pumping blood.
Not only that, emotional reactions are also quicker than rational ones. It takes about 100 milliseconds for our brain to elicit this emotional reaction and approximately 600 milliseconds for our cortex to register this. By the time you decide that its not a 'good idea' to get angry, you have been unconsciously expressing this feeling for 500 milliseconds.
So to start things off, you weren't really leaving your emotions at the door to your office building. And that's great, because emotions are necessary. In fact, consciously choosing to share your emotion is a sign of emotional intelligence. We do this in our private life - with our friends or family, on social media. Most people at most times are pretty capable of regulating emotions without being frenzied so I think we can trust ourselves with this at work. And what are the benefits of sharing emotions at work - collaboration, creativity, inspiration, innovation, independent decision-making and engagement.