Tools For Leaders

Understanding the Mystery of

Emotionality in the Workplace

So many of you have asked for further information and review of the topics we cover in the Leadership Workshops that I thought I’d create some occasional posts to provide you with the material and then archive them in a blog on my website for your future reference.

We’ll jump right in and discuss some powerful research on employee motivation because it’s been a very current topic in recent conversations with bosses and managers around the country.  Why do employees do what they do? Or not do what they’re supposed to? It’s an enormous topic, so we’ll take it one step at a time.

We now know for sure that something you always suspected about employees is, in fact, very true. In his groundbreaking book  Cognitive Neuroscience, Dr. Michael Gazzaniga of the University of California Santa Barbara shares some unsettling, yet compelling research which demonstrates clearly that 80 – 85% of human behavior is based on emotion…not logic. We all like to believe that we’re very logical creatures, thinking carefully and analytically through decisions and issues, when the truth is that we’re driven primarily by emotion – and that applies not just to those pesky employees, but to their managers and bosses as well!

“Each of us is an expert at making up reasons for our actions, when in fact, our emotions are the true cause of our actions.”  (Michael Gazzaniga)

You may have always wondered why your employees sometimes do things that make absolutely no sense at all. It’s actually a pretty straightforward concept – they’re simply not driven by logic. Here’s an example –  ‘Joe,’ the boss, had asked his managers to let him know when they were going to send an employee to training so he could plan for it in the expense budget. (Seems like a reasonable and logical request, yes?) One of his managers, ‘Dave,’ emailed Joe to let him know he wanted to send an employee, ‘Matt,’ to a training. Joe emailed back “Great idea, Dave; Matt can really benefit from it; thanks for letting me know!” So far, it all seems good, yes?

Well, time has a way of passing. After several days, Dave seemed moody. Joe asked what the problem was. Dave said “I’m frustrated being micro-managed.” Joe asked for elaboration. Dave said, “Well, like me having to ask your permission to send one of my own people to training!”

Argghhh! A very reasonable request (from a logical perspective) being misconstrued as over-controlling micromanagement. Dave had been angry about the original request right from the beginning, and had stewed on it for days. Dave is a college graduate. The company pays Dave a healthy amount of money. His boss had made what seemed like a simple, logical request. Dave’s response to it and subsequent management of it were completely embroiled in emotion.

An extremely important leadership issue is that managers and bosses keep thinking their employees operate from a logical base, and it simply is not the case. Bosses fight against this reality at great peril and enormous frustration. You may have had the exciting experience of designing a terrific payplan for someone that would allow them to significantly increase their income with just a little extra effort – and then discover the employee doesn’t do anything differently at all to take advantage of it! (The problem with most payplans, of course, is that they assume logic drives employees.)

Gazzaniga’s research is quite strong. And you no doubt have known it to be true at an intuitive level. The problem for many bosses is they keep trying to deal with employees from a logical perspective – with very mixed results, as you may have experienced.

How else can we possibly explain the breathtakingly stupid behaviors that we humans  engage in while we're in very visible and lofty positions, such as politicians, office-holders, athletes, business leaders, etc.? You may have said or heard someone else say, “What was that guy thinking?”  Well, guess what – he wasn’t!

Physiologically, emotion is what’s referred to by the behavioral gurus as “precognition” – that is, the emotional response happens well before the thought process occurs. When the amygdala (the ‘first brain;’ the center of raw emotion and the ‘fight/flight’ response) are awash in emotion, the neural circuitry to the prefrontal cortex (logic and analysis) is literally cut off – rendering us incapable of cognitive process!

The author Robert Greene has famously said, “Most people operate in a sea of swirling emotions.”  What a delightfully apt summary of common employee behavior. For bosses, moving into a more effective leadership role means developing an awareness of the reality that emotion plays in employee behavior and performance and resisting the temptation to continue addressing issues from a purely logical perspective. The more that a boss tries to fix emotional problems with logic, the more frustrated he or she will become.

Here’s an unsettling thought from Samuel Butler on emotionality in the workplace:

“No mistake is more common and more foolish than appealing to logic in situations that are beyond it’s jurisdiction.”

By no means does this imply that leaders should simply tolerate the emotionality or the performance and behavior issues that may result from it. It does mean, however, that leaders can’t be shocked, puzzled, or offended by it; since it’s really very normal (though frustrating). Further, it certainly implies that leaders must learn to defuse the emotion before they can redirect the employee to a more productive focus.

Think about it for a moment: if employee motivation were simply a function of logic, your life as a boss would be unbelievably easy! Trying to ‘motivate’ employees using logic without first clearing out the emotional cobwebs will result in frustration for both employee and boss and will absolutely not yield the boss’ desired result.

As Steve Wynn, arguably the ‘father’ of modern Las Vegas has said “Whoever wins at the emotional level in business, simply wins all the marbles.”  Great advice for bosses.