Put Some Feeling Into It! How Emotions Drive Us at Work

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by Janet Choi


Every workday is a personal day. Yet, people often split themselves into two: a work self and an authentic self. Your work self appears unflappable, the picture of cool, while your more authentic self experiences an entirely more colorful emotional palette.

Feelings are downplayed in the workplace but are important sources of feedback. We do ourselves a disservice to tune them out of our work lives.

First of all, our emotions are integral to how our brains process decisions. Let’s look at the famous case of a man named Elliot. A patient of neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, Elliot lost his ability to feel emotion after surgery to remove a brain tumor damaged his prefrontal cortex. It turns out Elliot also no longer had the capacity to make simple daily decisions and plan for the future, which ultimately led to an inability to keep his job or stay in his marriage. While we often consider our emotions as irrational and as impairments to sensible decision-making, they actually drive the reasoning process.

How we feel is key to our motivation and engagement at work. Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, authors of The Progress Principle, uncovered how a whopping 95% of managers get this simple connection all wrong. Those managers subscribe to an old-fashioned but tenacious notion that what motivates employees is money. After analyzing thousands of employee work diaries, the researchers found out that the most powerful motivator was actually a feeling of making progress everyday toward a meaningful goal.

Achieving that sense of motivating progress requires paying attention to our emotions, whether we feel frustrated or energized, grateful or resentful, and even when we feel, well, kind of blah. Noting how we feel allows us to gain insight into what’s working, what’s not, and how we can change things for the better.

It also helps to promote positive feelings, because they open up our fields of thought and vision. Neuroscientist Dr. Mark Beeman at Northwestern University found that people in a positive mood are more creative and reach more insights. In his experiment, study participants who watched a funny video, as opposed to a scary or boring one, solved more puzzles and with more “Aha!” moments of insight.

So what are some ways you can harness the energy of our emotions at work? Here are three ways.

Tune in to yourself. Just like you might check the weather at least once a day, check in with how sunny and rainy you feel on a regular basis. Acknowledge and allow yourself to feel your entire range of emotions, as fostering sunny feelings doesn’t mean you should disregard the cloudier ones. Remember, feelings are feedback, so take a moment to think about what’s happening on your emotional weather radar and why. Keep a work diary to reflect on your day.

Feed the progress-happiness loop. Feeling fulfilled, engaged, and happy at work means you feel like you’re making progress everyday toward a meaningful goal. Use all that perceptive reflection you’re doing to also pinpoint and address obstacles to progress at work such as a micromanaging boss or not getting enough sleep. Also discover and recognize what helps you move forward to keep your progress-happiness loop rolling.

Foster positive emotions. Negative memories and thoughts can crowd out all the positive stuff in your head. Balance yourself by scanning your day for three positives and note them. Keep an anti-todo list to appreciate all the great stuff you do. And spread the positivity by expressing gratitude, appreciation, and support. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by how much that positivity bounces back at you.

About Janet

picJanet Choi is the Chief Creative Officer at iDoneThis, the easiest team-building and progress management tool around that tracks, shares, and celebrates your accomplishments. She writes about productivity, creativity, fulfillment, and the way people work. She has had former gigs as an opera magazine editor, lawyer, and gelato scooper. Follow her on Twitter @lethargarian.

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