If you knew me anytime between high school and my early 40s, you would have described me as a person who was perpetually happy and optimistic. If you asked me how I was doing, I would tell you everything was “great”—even when it wasn’t. In reality, I believed sharing my emotions, especially negative ones, would make me appear weak, so I put on a happy face—literally for decades—and acted as if all was well all the time.
Upon reflection, you may notice a similar tendency to mute feelings in yourself or perhaps in others you know. That’s because, just like in my case, the behavior of covering up emotions was likely reinforced as you grew and matured.
Parents and teachers with the best of intentions instructed us to “calm down” when we were upset. They told us, “It’s not so bad,” or “Big boys and girls don’t cry.” Then when things were going well, they may have warned, “Don’t celebrate too much; it’ll bring you bad luck.” One of the myriad effects of such conditioning is that, as adults, and especially as business leaders, many of us are paying a hefty price for not being able to tune in to our emotions and the emotions of those around us.
It took me years to recognize my weakness and then figure out how to transform it into a strength. Along the way, I learned and witnessed that leadership performance and results improve dramatically when we’re emotionally tuned in.
Why Emotions Matter in Business
Decision-making, focus, and influence (including, but not limited to sales) are all overwhelmingly driven by emotion. In fact, much of the time—regardless of circumstances— our emotions govern us. Psychologists have demonstrated that we deploy logic to justify our choices after we’ve made a decision or taken action in response to our emotions. If you consider some choices you’ve made, big and small—the last car you bought, the most recent piece of clothing you purchased, or even an argument you had in the past couple of weeks—chances are you’ll see how true this “emotion then logic” sequence is. However, we often fool ourselves into believing that we make our choices based on logic. The vast majority of the time, we don’t.
Want even more evidence?
Consider the concept of buyer’s remorse, the regret we feel after making certain decisions (primarily applied to purchases, but also for any choice we make). Many cases of buyer’s remorse are the result of high-emotion decisions, backed by weak logic.
Since my birthday is just around the corner, allow me to share the midlife crisis version of how this works: because you were focused on how great you’d look in that sporty new convertible with your hair blowing in the wind and envious looks from other drivers, you signed on the dotted line. But a few weeks or months later, you regret making the choice—realizing that it was more than you could afford, or that the brand you chose looks great but isn’t very reliable—as a sense of dread and remorse invariably sets in. Although it may not have been a convertible or even a purchase in your particular case, with respect to our choices, we’ve all been there.
Recognizing your emotions and their impact enables better decision-making and helps avoid scenarios like these in business and beyond.
Further, it’s crucial to understand that certain emotions—feeling connected, a sense of belonging, excitement, challenge, and inspiration to name a few— are intangibles that literally propel you and your team to meet your organization’s tangible objectives like revenue, quality, profit, and net promoter score (NPS) for example. Yet business leaders spend a tremendous amount of time and energy thinking about and executing tangible objectives, but almost no time on the intangibles that speed progress. Through this lens, we can begin to see emotions as a primary mechanism of achievement.
Learning to harness them accelerates scalability, resilience, and success.
Let’s begin with a definition of emotion. According to Merriam-Webster, emotion is “a conscious mental reaction (such as anger or fear) subjectively experienced as a strong feeling usually directed toward a specific object and typically accompanied by physiological and behavioral changes in the body.”
Emotions are more than how we feel. An emotion has three components: a feeling, physiological change, and behavioral change. When you feel elated, your pulse races, you smile uncontrollably, and you might also raise your fist in triumph. When you feel angry, your pulse also races, you scowl, and you might also tense up your entire body preparing for a fight. For a deeper explanation, check out this fantastic eight-minute video clip of psychology and neuroscience researcher Lisa Feldman Barrett sharing her take on emotions.
As I described in the opening, many of us have been conditioned to override our feelings—or at least tamp them down—so that they don’t affect our behavior. But when we do that, we effectively discard two of the three elements in the experience of an emotion, which makes us less vulnerable and less effective as humans and as leaders. Worse, research shows that attempting to quash your emotions leads to unhealthy stress and any number of other physical ailments.
At this point, you might be wondering just how emotionally tuned in you are, so before we proceed further, here’s a quick opportunity to informally assess yourself. Grab a blank sheet of paper and a pen (or open a notes app on your phone), set a timer for three minutes, and write down every emotion, both positive and negative, you can name.
When you’re done, check out this list of 57 emotions to see how you did. If you’re like I was before I became more tuned in, you can name a dozen or so but completely miss the more nuanced emotions.
Three Emotional Levers to Advance Your Leadership
With an idea of just how many emotions are out there and their potential to influence your behavior for the better if you consciously and effectively tap into them, let’s get into three levers that can help you do just that.
Fear affects all of us—and likely more than you think. A 2009 study by Chanel and Chichilnisky illustrated that fear often overtakes our decision-making process, leading individuals to make choices based solely on the potential of a catastrophic event, no matter how unlikely. In business, those decisions wind up as safe bets—involving less creativity, less risk, and less change.
Until you choose to identify and then confront your fears, they’re guaranteed to invisibly drive your thinking and behavior to keep you within your comfort zone, which is exactly where you don’t want to be as an ambitious leader.
Fortunately, there are a number of techniques you can implement to counteract fear-based decision-making. One is to simply slow yourself down. When you face a choice that is stressful or causes you to feel fear, refrain from taking any action in that moment. Instead, slow down, ask clarifying questions—whether of yourself or others—and take time to mull it over. The effect of the delay reduces the impact of emotional thinking and makes way for more logical engagement. This “decrease emotion and increase logic” pattern is tried and true to minimize the impact of fear on your decisions.
Another option is to use the Fear Reduction Tool from my book Activators. It’s free, and you’ll find it here. This tool facilitates a structured approach to slow your thinking and a probability-based analysis to help you assess the true reality of your fear. A perennial favorite of business leaders who attend my workshops for its shockingly rapid impact, I encourage you to give it a try!
Increasing inspiration is the inverse process to marginalizing fear, and it is of equal importance. Another term I use for this is purposefulness, which creates a powerful impetus for action, an intense ability to focus, and a willingness to do the hard, right things required to succeed. When you and those around you believe in what you’re doing and where you’re headed in a way that creates a positive emotional state, you are much more likely to advance. Purposefulness is a chronically underutilized resource in business, often at great expense!
The mechanism here is the exact opposite of the “decrease emotion and increase logic” pattern required to reduce fear. To increase inspiration and purposefulness, you need to apply an “increase emotion and decrease logic” pattern instead.
One way to do that is to clarify your WHY. The more deeply you understand why something really matters to you, the more you’ll move away from the relatively cold logic of business to engage your emotions to help you and your team take action, especially in difficult circumstances.
To increase your inspiration and to help your team do the same, ask yourself a deepening sequence of “why does this really matter to me / us?” questions. To access a free tool that was designed to facilitate this thought process, click here to access the Know Your WHY Tool.
Tap into Your Emotional Guidance System
As I discussed with author Nir Eyal recently, the ability to be focused is one of the hallmarks of achieving meaningful traction in your work. Wouldn’t it be great if you had a way to keep yourself more sharply focused on the things you want to accomplish?
Your emotional state reflects your focus. That is, when you’re focused on something you want, you tend to feel positive emotions. On the other hand, when you’re focused on something you don’t want, you tend to feel negative emotions. In a business context, what you want could be “profitable growth,” and when you’re focused on that, you’ll likely be in a positive emotional state. That said, you might also focus on “not losing a key customer” in the name of achieving “profitable growth.” In this instance, you’re focused on what you don’t want – “not losing a key customer” – and will most likely be in a negative emotional state as a result.
Focusing your attention also primes the brain’s reticular activating system to seek ideas and items associated with that particular concept (this is why we “suddenly” see red cars everywhere when someone we know buys a new red car, for example). In this way, what you choose to focus on literally grows in importance to you. It also leads to your outcomes.
This implies that when you focus on things you don’t want, you get more of those things (along with negative emotions). On the other hand, when you focus on what you want—your goals and aspirations—you get more of those things (and a bunch of positive emotions). For a deeper dive on the relationship between focus, attention, and achievement, check out this article about the power of attention.
The focus-emotion connection is a key insight to mastering your emotional guidance system. Here’s how to use it:
Whenever you feel a negative emotion like fear, shame, or anxiety, pause and ask yourself, “Where is my focus right now? Am I concentrating on my goals and aspirations, or am I focused on what I don’t want?” If you’re intellectually honest with yourself, you’ll find that 100 percent of the time when you’re feeling a negative emotion, you’re focused on what you don’t want.
When you catch yourself focused on what you don’t want, adjust to focus on what you do want. This simple mechanism is incredibly powerful to keep yourself more productive and on track. I’d enjoy hearing how this technique works for you, so when you’ve tried it, please add a comment to this article or send me a note!
Emotional self-awareness and mastery of the links between emotional state, decision-making, and outcomes confer significant advantage in leadership and in business. Whether you realize it or not, as Nobel Peace Prize nominee Dr. TP Chia explains, “We all live at the mercy of our emotions. Our emotions influence and shape our desires, thoughts and behaviors and above all our destiny.”
As you learn to use the three levers I’ve presented here, you’ll increasingly capitalize on the hidden power of your emotions, improving your leadership and accelerating even more toward your goals and aspirations.
In my work as a business and leadership growth coach, I encounter articles, research, and stories about how leaders learn, grow, and become more effective. As you’ll see below, I share just two or three in each edition of my newsletter – particularly those at the intersection of leadership, business growth, and behavior change.
“Serious” Leaders Need Self-Care, Too (HBR)
“The benefits of self-care are well known. Yet when I work with my leadership clients, I often get major pushback around the whole idea. Why are many leaders so resistant to taking a bit of time for themselves?
It usually boils down to misperceptions around what good leadership is, what self-care is, and how self-care actually works. Luckily, I’ve also found that with some thoughtful introspection, it’s possible for even the most skeptical among us to overcome those misconceptions and learn to reap the benefits of self-care. Below, I consider the three most common excuses my clients give for their resistance to self-care, and offer some solutions to help leaders overcome that resistance…”
How Science Can Help You Make Better Decisions (Entrepreneur)
“Dark roast or light? Window seat or aisle? Whole wheat or rye? Every day brings an onslaught of new decisions — about 35,000 for the average adult, according to studies. If we account for seven hours of sleep, that’s 2,000 decisions per hour, or one choice every two seconds.
The vast majority of our daily choices are inconsequential, from liking an Instagram photo to declining that pushy limited-time offer. Tough decisions, however, can be daunting — and a real dilemma usually indicates that something meaningful is at stake. When we struggle to choose, it often feels like our livelihood, relationships, or wellbeing are on the line. Thankfully, science is here to help…”
Want More? Consider These Next Steps…