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Work Smart

The Productive Way To Manage Your Emotions At Work

How we handle our emotions at work may hold consequences for problem solving and long-term motivation.

The Productive Way To Manage Your Emotions At Work
[Photo: Flickr user Petras Gagilas]

By and large, getting emotional is a bad move. Displaying too much emotion is often seen as unprofessional, disrupting the air of calm rationality that's supposed to reign in most workplaces.

But trying to master our emotions in professional settings isn’t always the best idea, either. Just ask anyone who's ever worked in one, and they're likely to tell you that offices are never exclusively (or even usually) places governed by sober logic. They probably shouldn't be even if they could. Our feelings play important roles in problem solving, motivation, and other essential cognitive functions that we use at work. So the question should be not about how to suppress our emotions, but how to channel them into productive uses.

The Mind-Body Connection

You may not think you're using the complex, interconnected systems that link your body with your brain while you're at work—especially if your job involves sitting down in front of a screen and thinking through analytical or creative problems. But emotions aren’t abstract things detached from physical reality; they’re an important part of how we function as biological beings.

The sense of satisfaction we feel at completing a task, for instance, is caused by a release of dopamine, among other neurochemicals. Do well, and your brain rewards you with that chemical kick. On the other hand, clinical depression has been linked to a shortage of dopamine as well as two other neurotransmitters, serotonin and norepinephrine.

Failing to deal properly with negative emotions can do long-term damage to your brain, all but killing its supply of these vital chemicals. In milder forms, making a habit of suppressing negative emotions can undercut your motivation. And in more extreme forms, it can make it impossible for you to work.

Mastering Yourself, Not Just Your Emotions

In their 1994 book The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, a group of writers and editors led by the systems scientist and management guru Peter Senge tried to tackle this issue head-on. The gist of their recommended approach was to throw out many traditional notions of emotional control.

When we talk about mastering our emotions, we often mean controlling them and keeping them in check. But for Senge and his team of scholars, mastery had a different meaning. Instead, it was about acknowledging, exploring, and understanding them. We should take quiet time to see how we're feeling rather than rush on by and leave them to ambush us later. In any situation we confront, they argued, we should consider not just our thoughts about it, but also our feelings.

Personal mastery then becomes not about controlling your feelings, but working with them productively. That means learning to understand and respect what your biochemistry is trying to tell you.

Maybe an idea makes you uncomfortable but you can’t see a rational reason for why. In that case, it's likely that your emotional response system has detected something your conscious, reasoning mind has missed. Explore the feeling, delve deeper, and you may find a problem and its solution that you would otherwise have missed.

Real Motivation

Many efforts to motivate employees rely on compensation and recognition for good performance, and the threat of negative consequences for poor performance. But in this view of emotional mastery, work needs to be rewarding in itself, a notion that subsequent research has largely vindicated.

And indeed, that approach that makes sense once we consider the biochemistry behind rewards. The dopamine rush we get from successfully completing a task gets weaker each time we experience it unless the reward becomes greater.

Employees who are made to feel satisfied by external rewards will have to be given more money and praise each time in order to stay engaged at the same level. Those motivated by the satisfaction of the work, on the other hand, will want more challenging tasks and greater achievements. The former takes resources out of the business, while the latter brings it closer to achieving its goals.

Some 20 years on, The Fifth Discipline Handbook still contains valuable lessons. When combined with our growing understanding of neuroscience, it can and should transform the way we approach emotions, letting us use them in the workplace rather than repressing them and paying the price.

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