Five things a leader should know about the link between emotions and leadership results

Carol Kinsey GomanI once asked the CEO of a technology company how his employees were dealing with a proposed change. “We’ve presented all the facts,” he replied. “But it would be much easier if people weren’t so emotional!”

In the business world, we are taught to approach organizational challenges objectively and logically. We quantify everything we can and guard against emotions that would hijack our objectivity.

But according to neurologist and author Antonio Damasio, the centre of our conscious thought (the prefrontal cortex) is so tightly connected to the emotion-generating amygdala that no one makes decisions based on pure logic – despite the belief that we do. Brain science makes it clear that mental processes we’re not conscious of drive our decision-making, and logical reasoning is often no more than a way to justify emotional choices.

Nowhere is this link more evident than in leading organizational change efforts, and most leaders are aware of the need to present change in ways that resonate both logically and emotionally.

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Fewer leaders, however, realize how much their own emotional state influences a team’s (or an organization’s) attitude and productivity. Here are five things a leader should know about the link between emotion and leadership results.

1. Emotions affect people instantly

In a study at the University of Tubingen in Germany, subjects were shown photos of happy or sad faces and then asked questions to gauge their emotional reactions. People reported corresponding emotions to the photos – even when the pictures lasted only fractions of a second.

Likewise, those who report to you will instantly and unconsciously pick up your emotional displays, even if you believe you have quickly suppressed them.

2. Emotions are contagious

A business simulation experiment at Yale University gave two groups of people the assignment of deciding how much of a bonus to give each employee from a set fund of money. Each person in the group was to get as large a bonus as possible for certain employees while being fair to the entire employee population. In one group, the conflicting agendas led to stress and tension, while in the second group, everyone ended up feeling good about the result. The difference in emotional response was created by the “plants” – actors who had been secretly assigned to manipulate people’s feelings about the project. In the first group, the actor was negative and downbeat; in the second, he was positive and upbeat.

The emotional tone of the meetings followed the lead of each actor – although none of the group members understood how or why those particular feelings had emerged.

3. Emotions flow most strongly from the most powerful person in the room to others

Researchers at California State University in Long Beach found that when business leaders were in a good mood, members of their work groups experienced more positive emotions and were more productive than groups with leaders in a bad mood.

4. The brain pays more attention to emotionally negative messages than to positive ones

Inside the medulla is a vital link to the reticular activating system (RAS). RAS sorts the 100 million impulses that assail the brain each second and evolved with an inherent tendency to magnify negative and minimize positive messages.

Today, RAS still prefers to interpret things negatively, and we then react by getting defensive and anxious. That’s why a leader’s body language (frowns, crossed arms, lack of eye contact, etc.) can get amplified into signals of danger – and why mixed messages (when a leader’s verbal content and body language signals are out of alignment) may be evaluated as threatening to our status, relationships, and even to our continued employment.

5. You can’t (successfully) hide emotions

Stanford University’s research on emotional suppression shows why hiding our true feelings is so difficult: The effort required takes a physical and psychological toll. Subjects instructed to conceal their emotions reported feeling ill at ease, distracted and preoccupied. And this was validated by a steady rise in their blood pressure.

But another, quite unexpected (and for leaders, a much more important) finding showed a corresponding increase in blood pressure in those who were only listening to the subjects. So when a leader tries to suppress what they really feel, the resulting tension isn’t just personal; it is also unconsciously contagious.

To tap into the power of emotion, savvy leaders understand how feelings (their own and other people’s) impact and influence an organization’s ability to make business decisions, stay positive and productive, and embrace change.

Troy Media columnist Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, is an executive coach, consultant, and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. She is also the author of STAND OUT: How to Build Your Leadership Presence.

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The opinions expressed by our columnists and contributors are theirs alone and do not inherently or expressly reflect the views of our publication.

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