People often ask me whether emotions have a place in the workplace. I reply, of course, humans are emotional beings.

That doesn’t mean we always welcome emotions or know how to be intelligent with them. Expressions of emotion at work can be seen as inconvenient, better stifled or left for social occasions. In fact, we often fear them.

Let’s imagine I am a leader and one of my team is upset. When they get teary, I may think, “Oh no!, what am I going to do? How awkward. What now?”

People get nervous dealing with emotions at work. It’s the same if someone has been absent because a loved-one died. When they return to work, nobody asks about their loved-one. People say it is because they don’t want to upset them, yet what they are really saying is, I don’t want to upset that person because I will have to deal with it. We shy away, or fail to use our emotions effectively.

There are leaders who, when they get stressed or emotional lash out. They become domineering and controlling, and their team members don’t know how to handle them.

Some people become teary when they get angry, then get upset and embarrassed with themselves for tearing up.

Aligning emotions with information, and learning what that information is telling you, relieves that sense of failure at feeling an emotion, and can help leaders know how to deal with other people’s emotional responses.

Once both people become more aware of an emotion, perhaps before it escalates, and accept it without judgment, they can employ more conscious choices to shift the emotion or improve how they handle it.


Gut feelings and rational decisions

If we step away from the assumption that having emotions means being ‘emotional’ we can look at emotions for what they are designed to do: give us data about ourselves and our environment to guide decision-making. The more information we have, the better equipped we are to make wise decisions and take effective action.

If we learn to tune in, we can pick up emotions and feelings at a physiological level. The science behind these cues is called “somatic marker” theory. Our “gut instincts” allow our brains to make a call about a future action, based on what our body is telling us or has told us in the past. Tension in our shoulders or hands may be hinting at rising anger; while the desire to get up and move may indicate excitement.

According to Antonio Damasio, learning to tune in to emotions is integral to rational decision-making as we can’t have one without the other.

“What we construct as wisdom over time is actually the result of cultivating… knowledge of how our emotions behaved and what we learn from them.” – Antonio Damasio


Emotions have a purpose

Emotions have a purpose, an adaptive function: to mobilise us to deal quickly with important interpersonal events. The more we understand them, the more we understand what drives behaviour.

In essence, we feel fear when faced with a possible threat, physical or psychological; disgust when something, or someone, offends us; anger when something or someone gets in the way of what we want. Sadness is a natural expression of loss of something of value, designed to elicit empathy and care from those around us and allow us to retreat to recoup resources. We feel happiness and joy when we gain something we value or things work out; making us more open and ready to reach out to others.

This is the basic theory of emotions defined by Paul Ekman. While these emotions are classified as positive or negative, they are neither good nor bad. They simply are.

Yet the full spectrum of human emotional experience encompasses complex and subtle blends. We are happy and sad about the promotion at work that will take us away from the team we’ve worked hard to build. We feel a little fearful and excited before launching a new project.

We are pleased and curious to meet a new contact who might introduce us to new ideas. We are frustrated and a little heart-broken when undermined by a close colleague or friend.


Learning from emotions

We need to make room for all these emotions in the workplace. To accept them, learn from them, and use them intelligently. The MSCEIT framework developed by Peter Salovey, Jack Mayer and David Caruso, originators in the field of emotional intelligence, is a useful framework to understand and fine-tune our emotional intelligence abilities:

  • Perceiving emotions. The ability to correctly identify how yourself and others are feeling.

Emotion contains information about ourselves, other people and the world around us.

We need to pay attention to emotions and be accurate in identifying how we and others feel. This can involve observing micro-expressions or tuning in to the emotional climate around us.

  • Using emotions. The ability to create emotions and integrate your feelings into the way you think.

Our emotions influence both what we think about and how we think. If you are in a positive mood you will see things differently than if you are in a negative mood. You can shift emotions, for example by dialing up or down the intensity level to get a better result in a given situation. Shifting your body can also shift your mood. Smiling makes other people feel good and can trigger mirror neurons in our brain that increase our empathy for others.

  • Understanding emotions. The ability to understand the causes and complexity of emotions.

Figuring out why we feel a certain way and how these feelings change over time.

If you understand emotions, you can predict how an idea will be taken, how others might react to you. Developing a wide emotional vocabulary can increase our ability to accept, tolerate and learn from complex feelings. Labeling negative emotions tends to lessen their power.

  • Managing emotions. The ability to figure out strategies that use your emotions to help you achieve a goal.

We need a range of reactive and proactive strategies to manage our own and other people’s emotions. It may not always be good sense to go with a current feeling, better to return to it later when you have time to understand it and work out an effective strategy. If we permanently suppress a feeling we will ignore critical information. Emotional suppression over time is also associated with a raft of health problems (and can even make you less likeable).


Human emotions are complex. The more complex our world is becoming, the more emotional intelligence and emotional agility we will need. We can all learn strategies to integrate our emotions with our thinking and respond effectively, rather than reactively. These skills take practice and commitment to develop yet I find most people can expand their range and build on their individual strengths, particularly when they understand how emotions work.

Next time a co-worker reacts with emotion how will you respond?

You can learn more about the Emotional Intelligence programmes we deliver in global organisations and government departments or the advanced emotional intelligence training I offer to coaches, consultants, business leaders and human capital managers.

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