The Art and Science of Emotion at Work

There is a cause and an effect to expressing emotions in the workplace. The cause depends on several factors as does the effect. Thankfully, while the cause is largely beyond our control, the effect is not.

Emotions are caused by our interaction with our world. You can probably think of at least a few examples of how the behaviors of others in the workplace have triggered your emotions. However, emotions originate from a part of the brain that functions without our conscious awareness. Dr. Jaak Panskepp, author of Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions (2004) and Textbook of Biological Psychiatry (2003), has identified specific regions and chemistries in this part of the brain for seven different emotion systems (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=65e2qScV_K8). Dr. Panskepp calls four of these seven emotion systems “rewarding” because they point out things that support our survival. The remaining three systems are called “aversive” because they point out things that threaten our survival. If these emotion systems are functioning properly in the brain, then our rewarding systems tell us what situations and people to engage and our aversive systems tell us what situations and people to be cautious of or avoid.

Businessman Desk Emotions

Imagine not having any emotions. How would you know who to trust and who to steer clear of in the workplace? It turns out there are also physical consequences of not having emotions. For example, there is a neurological condition known as alexithymia which causes an emotional blindness that can range from having difficulty identifying emotions to not being conscious of emotions at all (http://www.bbc.com/). Those with alexithymia are believed to have damage to their neural circuits connected to the area of the brain where the emotion systems described by Dr. Panskepp reside. Most patients with alexithymia also suffer from physical conditions such as fibromyalgia and IBS (irritable bowel syndrome).

While emotions are important to our survival and functioning, we can get pretty freaked out by others expressing emotion in the workplace – especially women. Why are we so worried about expressing emotions in the workplace when emotions are so important to our well-being? The answer comes from social psychology (Thory, K., “A Gendered Analysis of Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace: Issues and Concerns for Human Resource Development,” 2012, Human Resource Development Review, 12(2), 221-244). Every culture has expectations of what behavior is appropriate for a man versus a woman when it comes to emotions. In the United States, men are expected to exercise emotional control, be rational, and use emotions for performance. Women are expected to understand their own emotions and the emotions of others, to talk about emotion, be empathetic, and to care for others. Because the U.S. workforce has consisted of mostly men until 1964, when the Civil Rights Act was passed, it is not surprising that the expression of emotion other than in support of performance is still uncommon in workplaces. Even today, the upper echelons of U.S. organizations are still predominantly men (http://www.catalyst.org/knowledge/women-sp-500-companies).

Not only are our emotions important to our well-being, but our emotions, together with social norms and other influences, determine our behaviors. Leadership behaviors shaped from the male social norms of exercising emotional control, being rational, and using emotions for performance are very different than those shaped by the female social norms of understanding the emotions of others, talking about emotions, empathizing, and caring. Working with a colleague while applying a different set of social norms is fraught with difficulty. Work effectiveness would sky-rocket if men and women could express both female and male social norms without social penalty when working together. The good news is that behavioral scientists are figuring out how to better navigate both female and male social norms. Behavioral scientists are teasing out leadership behaviors that come more naturally to men than to women on average and vice versa. In addition, behavioral scientists are exploring tactics for women to exhibit male leadership behaviors in ways that don’t incur social penalties in today’s workplace, and, vice versa.

Working with a colleague while applying a different set of social norms is fraught with difficulty.

Valerie Patrick

When an organization’s top leadership positions are occupied by men, the expected leadership behaviors are shaped, at least in part, by male social norms such as exercising emotional control, being rational, and using emotions for performance. These behaviors will come more naturally to men than to women in the workplace. In addition, a woman whose behavior is judged to be a violation of the presiding male social norms will likely not be considered a strong candidate for leadership in that organization.

When an organization’s top leadership positions are occupied by men, the expected leadership behaviors are shaped, at least in part, by male social norms.

Valerie Patrick

To be competitive in the future, organizations need to update their approach to leadership development. The new approach needs to accommodate pre-leadership development of women to teach them proven ways to express the leadership behaviors expected by male subordinates and male leaders. Pre-leadership development would enable women to be seen as strong leadership candidates in the organization. The new approach also needs to embrace leadership training that emphasizes leadership behaviors expected by both male and female employees. The updated approach would enable organizations to fully leverage the talent that resides in the balanced workforce of men and women.

If you are interested in learning more, then check out the next offering of a course that provides the tactics for men and women to develop the leadership behaviors needed in a balanced workforce of men and women: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/science-of-success-for-women-and-men-workshop-tickets-27228467078?aff=es2.

Categories