3 outdated reasons why emotions do not belong in the workplace
Updated: Jul 14
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. Here are 3 arguments from the past century to support this.
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 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. Some studies have even shown 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). Interestingly, 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 keep themselves together.
At this point you might realise that I do not personally subscribe to any of these arguments. However, I am also not suggesting that full emotional expression is always the right way to go in any situation, in or out of the office. The spectrum of emotional expression is extremely broad, and also very nuanced. We are currently starting to accept that stigmatizing and then repressing emotions in the workplace can actually back-fire. However, I believe that one step further is to actually embrace the idea that emotions are not just 'not so bad', but actually beneficial.
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 inextricably linked. 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, albeit unconsciously. Reasoning or rationalising a problem can potentially go on forever, with endless hypothesizing. What eventually directs us towards making a decision from this rationalization is an emotional input. 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 out-run your emotions
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 quicker than rational ones. It takes about 100 milliseconds for our brain to elicit an 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, it has been written all over your face for 500 milliseconds. And believe me, it has been registered by anybody looking - also unconsciously. Your emotional brain is faster than you.
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. And again, not only is it not bad, it is the glue that holds us together and brings many benefits to any workplace - collaboration, creativity, inspiration, innovation, independent decision-making and engagement.