The Feel Factor – Why no workplace can afford to ignore what people feel

Emotions at work

According to a study many employees do not want their co-workers to express any type of strong emotion — positive or negative.

Employees expect others to hide negative emotions in order to maintain what they call “professionalism.” They also expect co-workers to hide positive ones by not showing too much pleasure with promotions or raises because someone else might have missed out.

Emotions have been getting a bad rap in the workplace. If you’re a true professional, the thinking goes, you never show emotions at work. In fact, the really true professional has no emotions at work. He’s a little like Spock from Star Trek who said that “Emotions are alien to me. I’m a scientist.”

Consequently, in many workplaces showing strong emotions, good or bad, can be career suicide. If you allow your frustration at a bad decision or your elation at a victory to shine through, you will be seen as volatile, untrustworthy and, of course, unprofessional.

There’s only one problem: Human beings don’t work that way.

We have emotions. We have them in our private lives, and it’s not like we can leave them in the car in the parking lot at work. Whether we want them to or not, they’re coming to work with us.

The best workplaces know this, and leave room for both positive and negative emotions. As a result, people are happier at work, are more creative, function better in teams and are more productive and motivated.

On the other hand, companies that ignore and/or stifle emotions are setting themselves up for massive doses of conflict, frustration, disengagement and unhappiness at work.

Read on to see why no company can afford to ignore emotions in the workplace.

1: We make no decisions without emotions

The evidence has been piling up throughout history, and now neuroscientists have proved it’s true: The brain’s wiring emphatically relies on emotion over intellect in decision-making.

“We found everyone showed emotional biases, more or less; no one was totally free of them,” De Martino says. Even among the four participants who were aware they were inconsistent in decision-making, “they said, ‘I know, I just couldn’t help myself,’ ” he says.(source)

Many, many people think that decisions (especially business decisions) should be made rationally. You know, we coolly list the pros and cons, the risks and opportunities and then choose the best possible course.

Well I’ve got news for ya: That’s not how we make decisions. In reality, our emotions play a huge role in each and every decision we make, and if our decision making process does not acknowledge this, the process is sure to suffer. And so will the qualities of the decisions we make.

2: Emotions guide workplace relationships

No team, department, workgroup or company can function without good working relationships between people. What’s more, good workplace relations are one of the largest causes of happiness at work.

And once again, we form workplace relations with our emotions. The reason you work well with George and Tina isn’t that you’ve rationally decided to create a good relationship with them, because “that would be good for the project.” No, you work well with George and Tina because you like them and they like you.

And when you have those kinds of relationships in a team, the team functions much, much better. Contrast that with the team where everyone can kinda see that the other guys are good at what they do, but nobody cares about each other.

3: Emotions are at the core of employee engagement and motivation

Workplaces today want employees to be more than just wage slaves who only come in for the salary. Companies want people to be motivated and engaged at work and exert a lot of effort in team building, bonus schemes, motivational speakers etc. to further this.

And guess what: Engagement and motivation are emotions. It’s not like employees rationally tally up all the pros and cons of being motivated and then decide to be it or not to be it. Whether or not we care about our workplace is a non-rational, emotional process. The caring itself is an emotion.

4: Emotions are crucial to creativity and innovation

Businesses are also crying out for more creativity and innovation from their people and unsurprisingly, since I mention it here, this also relies in people’s emotional state.

Teresa M. Amabile has studied how employees’ emotional state affect creativity and has found that:

One, people have incredibly rich, intense, daily inner work lives; emotions, motivations, and perceptions about their work environment permeate their daily experience at work. Second, these feelings powerfully affect people’s day-to-day performance.

And that:

If people are in a good mood on a given day, they’re more likely to have creative ideas that day, as well as the next day, even if we take into account their mood that next day.

There seems to be a cognitive process that gets set up when people are feeling good that leads to more flexible, fluent, and original thinking, and there’s actually a carryover, an incubation effect, to the next day.

So if we want people to be creative, we need them to feel good at work. More emotions!

5: Emotions are integral to learning at work

Learning on the job is also hugely important today. Few people get to work a job that never changes, and many employees are regularly learning new procedures, IT systems, regulations, etc. Again, many companies view learning as a purely rational process. As in “There’s a chunk of knowledge in the teacher’s head – we shall now transfer that knowledge into your head.”

But all theories of learning show, that emotions play a huge role in learning. When we are scared, upset or stressed, we are terrible learners. We’re less able to concentrate, less able to recall past learnings and less able to make mental connections in the things we learn. When we’re relaxed and having fun, learning happens much faster.

6: It’s not like we can leave our emotions at home

Emotions are a huge part of us human beings. What we love and hate and enjoy and fear is a large part of who we are. Placing us in a situation where we have emotions but can’t show them is stressful and unpleasant.

7: When we stifle bad emotions we strengthen them

If an employee is angry, disappointed or frustrated over something at work and is not allowed to display that emotion, there’s a good chance the emotion will grow stronger because that person can’t get it out in the open and deal with it.

A study shows that these negative emotions should not be ignored:

“If employees have emotional reactions and their employers don’t pay attention to those reactions, they can withdraw. They are more likely to take sick days, and if their frustration continues to grow they will actually leave their jobs.” (Source)

8: When we stifle good emotions we weaken them

And when we stifle positive emotions the opposite happens: We weaken them.

Let’s say you make that huge sale you’ve been working on for weeks. This is your best work for the company yet. A true triumph. It feels really good.

If you’re not allowed to show your elation, that positive feeling will soon dissipate. That is why the best workplaces are very good at celebrating victories, big or small. Celebrating keeps the good feeling alive for a longer period of time, and motivates people to go out and create more victories.

9: Emotions are a sign that people care about the workplace

The only emotionless workplace is the one where no one gives a damn! If people feel happy when they’re successful and sad when they’re not, it’s a sign that they care about their work. This is a good thing.

The upshot: How the best workplaces handle emotions

So, should all business devolve into endless meetings where we can talk about our feelings? Should all meeting rooms be equipped with Kleenex in case someone starts crying? Should we express our tiniest, most fleeting emotions and go into full-on tantrums whenever we feel like it?


But workplaces should:

  1. Make room for the emotions that employees have. They’re there, might as well deal with it.
  2. Learn how emotions influence business success factors like learning, creativity and teamwork.
  3. Learn how to deal constructively – and even appreciatively – with displays of emotion – negative and positive.

Southwest Airlines get this – they’re fine with people showing what they feel, good or bad. One manager leaving the company after 22 years wrote this after his farewell party at the company:

Damn, that was brutal…brutal in the sense that it makes leaving all of this even harder…I think it’s a conspiracy, a torturous way to keep you from leaving. They have all this food for you, balloons everywhere, and gifts galore…even a new sports coat to wear in lieu of the polo and shorts I wear today. And the People…my friends…the smiles, tears, comments, and stories…man this is killing me. Anyone that ever questioned the Southwest Culture and Spirit never understood it to begin with…Why am I leaving? Confusing huh?

Smiles and tears. That’s what I would want, leaving a company after 22 years. Not just a gold watch and a carefully prepared, professional(!) send-off. Smiles and tears :o)

Kent Blumberg tells a great story about Listening meetings in a company – where the CEO meets with various teams and simply sits down to listen to whatever is said.

And that’s how the best companies handle emotions. They ask questions like:

  • “So, how do you feel about this meeting/decision/project/whatever?”
  • “How are you doing?”
  • “I can tell you’re not happy with this meeting. What’s your take?”

And then they shut up and listen!

What about you? Do you show how you feel at work? The good or the bad? How does your company receive displays of emotions? Write a comment, I’d really like to know.


32 thoughts on “The Feel Factor – Why no workplace can afford to ignore what people feel”

  1. Interesting topic Alexander!

    And although I think some level of modulation of ones feelings is appropriate and natural at work ;-) I agree that employers should not expect their employees (resources) to be just empty shells once they enter the office domain!
    I worked in a department that was going to be closed down within a very short period of time and at short notice. People would be transferred to other jobs within the company, but they had to apply for the available jobs, go to job interviews etc. This annoouncement came not even half a year after the same people had been transferred from ANOTHER department which had also been closed down! Naturally this put a lot of “stress” on everyone. And while it would only have been common sence to acknowlegde this, and allow people to discuss and share their feelings – the opposite happened. People who raised their voices and concern about their future (e.g. asked about what kind of job could they be expecting to get, what would the process be etc ..) at meetings were pulled aside by the manager and told not to spread negative energy! Thus, instead of creating a “we’ll pull through together” atmosphere – most people felt “on their own”, unappreciated and did not really buy the idea of the whole thing being a merge – and not a “take over”. Anyway, I think management could have done SO much better had they been open to discussions with people and shown understanding of the whole situation!

  2. Alexander, it is so true that companies try to stifle emotion. Stoicism is practically taught in “management” classes. Don’t mix with the staff. Don’t react. But it’s unrealistic. Negative emotionalism is browbeating…and we know what Bob Sutton would have to say about that. ;-) But good emotions are part of the lifeblood of an organization. Passion is not Spock-like. (Great graphic to use, btw.)

    I had a friend whose dad used to always say, “Get fired with emotion or you’ll get fired with emotion.” (Sorry, it’s an American English word play…getting “fired with emotion” is what a lot of American football coaches say before games…”fire up.”)

  3. Alex, this is a spot-on topic.

    Organizations send up a huge banner to the world by how they “deal” with this.

    There are two messages:

    1. This is business. I don’t want to see how you “feel.” The message: You are here to play a role. We hired you for what you can do.
    2. This is a business built by people. It’s important to understand how you feel.
    The message: You are here because of what you can do as well as who you are.

    Healthy adults know, situationally, when and where to keep certain emotions in check. They also know when to express them because of the urgency, seriousness, or passion of the situation.

    I have always been concerned with organizations that do massive and expensive employee surveys, only to refuse to follow up and find out “why” people were ticking off certain answer, pro or con. My experience has been that, in those instances, the survey was about the “surveyor” and not the employees.

    Thanks for taking time to due that lenghty post.

  4. Hi Alex –

    Thanks for the comment about Southwest and I completely agree with your insights. “Emotion” is a big part of why Southwest is successful…we celebrate each other’s accomplishments and grieve each other’s losses. As our President Colleen Barrett says “We are a company of People…we just happen to fly planes.” Being a company of People means letting people be who they are – and that naturally comes with laughter, tears, frustration, excitement, etc. In fact, I just came from our annual Valentine’s Day celebration (a tradition at the LUV airline) where we give the “Heroes of the Heart” award to a group of derserving Employees that work being the scenes but make a big impact on the company. This year we honored the Internal Customer Care team – they are seven individuals who make sure every single Employee is cared for – they send gifts, letters, birthday cards, condolences, etc. and are the “heart behind the heart.” Some may think Southwest is extreme in its “touchy-feeliness” but you can’t argue with 33 consecutive years of profitability. Care to make the argument that emotion might be the secret to business success? :)

    Thanks for the post.

  5. Anne: Thanks for that story. There is absolutely no doubt that corporate crisis and change give rise to strong emotions in people – and not always good ones. Ahem.

    As your story shows, when these feelings are not acknowledged and adressed, everything suffers, including productivity and happiness at work. That so many companies still do not recognize this fact astounds me!

    Frank: Great quote! And I agree that stoicism is taught to most leaders. Which has me thinking that while staying calm in a crises is a good thing for managers to learn, cutting yourself off from your own and your employees’ feelings is not good :o)

    Steve: Great point about the two messages and also about the surveys. Why do’em, if you’re not going to learn from’em?

    Angela: Thanks for adding to the Southwest perspective. I’m a long-time admirer of you guys – ever since I read Nuts!

    People who think you guys are too touchy-feely will probably have little trouble finding another workplace in which NO emotions are allowed. Ever :o)

    I agree completely, that Southwest’s skills in this area are a huge factor behind how well you’re doing.

    And how great is it to have an “Internal Customer Care team”? I love it!

  6. Fantastic post Alex! Having just recently founded my own startup i can say that Southwest is a great example that i look up to. In a business world that is filled with stoicism and “professionalism” they helped pave the way to proving that emotions and love in business wins every time.

  7. A huge theme in the emotion at work debate is the assumption that emotion is generated at home and brought in to the workplace and nothing could be further from the truth. Organisations are emotional and emotion generating environments and how we express our feelings (the private experience) as the emotion (the public performance of those feelings) is socially constructed. how many people ever come home from work talking about the bottom line? we talk about work in emotional terms because work is a social setting. In fact the assumption that rational organisations can ask sentinent beings who are rational and emotional to split off one part of themselves at the front door is, in fact, an irrational request at the best of times. Stephen Fineman’s work in this area is particularly interesting and I am currently researching a PhD into “the organisation of disappointment” – a universal phenomenon in organisations. Great and provocative post and I wish that we could stop paying lipservice to emotion through processes like Emotional Intelligence (which is about cognitising and controlling emotion) and really engage with the humanity of the social setting that is work!

  8. In marketing / sales, we learn that people buy emotionally and justify logically. This is an extension of that truth.

    The trick is acknowledging and working with / around emotion without becoming automatons on the one side or non-productive balls of feeling on the other.

    When I worked at Apple years and years ago, the managers meetings were literally shouting matches. The managers, who were setting the stage for the rest of us, were screaming at each other, calling each other really horrible names, and not getting anything done.

    As a result, whatever the problems were in the first meeting came back to the next meeting. It got ugly.

    Of course, all of this fed the “I’m gonna get him!” emotion and led into pretty complex political plays starring the managers and featuring the underlings playing the part of “Pawn”.

    Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult for a “company” to handle emotions positively. It takes emotionally mature people managing the company and that’s not why people get put into management.


  9. I would suggest that people should look at socionics. Even basic understanding of the human psyche can reveal a lot. Using a simplistic approach, the case of emotions the situation can be viewed like this: Some people have very strong emotions (the ethical types) and these emotions are an asset to them; some people have a deficiency in the emotions domain (the logical types) and this deficiency is known. Pairing up a Logical with an Ethical (the right way) can result in an increase performance of the Logical AND the Ethical giving you basically a 1+1=3 situation. For example, the SLE-IEI duality is described as a tactician-strategist collaboration. The first one knows how to implement and how to follow through when the going get tough… and the second one provides direction and feedback… something like “strike there for the most efficient result” or “your tactics are devastating”. The first one has the killer instinct the second one knows what needs to die. ;)

  10. The American Institute of Stress and The Centers For Disease Control have both reported that up to 90% of all illnesses are due to stress. For many years I experienced several life threatening chronic illnesses. I found the Institute of HeartMath and discovered that all of these illnesses were due to stress and emotions I had been experiencing in my life, many from experiences in my workplace. Learning and practicing HeartMath’s scientifically substantiated tools and emotions in-the-moment, achieve better health, more energy, improved mental and emotional clarity, and improved performance and relationships can be found at

  11. Timely post. I’m one of those inherentlty happy and cheerful people … someone who can be counted on in the office to be happy, positive, uplifting, optimistic. And it’s genuine. Any small troubles, I prefer to keep to myself. But recently some very upsetting business practices were discovered at work and it appears that management is hoping the problem will go away and that employees will move forward without concerning themselves with having past restitution. This is one instance where I am wearing my emotions on my sleeve and if someone asks me how I’m feeling, I tell them that I am angry and upset. This is not expectetd from me and I know it has contributed to the dark office environment but I want our management to feel uncomfortable and I want them to squirm. If I continue to act “professional”, being my usual cheerful, sunny self, they will surely take advantage. That is my feeling, at least. But, I must say, it is difficult for me to even express my unahappiness at work. I feel guilty doing it and it bothers me to see people I otherwise like made uncomfortable by my honesty. I like being happy and I like being cheerful.

  12. By the way, workplace unhappiness is definitely impacting on my work and on my creativity. And feeling unproductive is all the more reason to feel unsatisfied.

  13. “I want our management to feel uncomfortable and I want them to squirm”
    Anger does not hurt the management it hurts you! Stop doing it!

    Someone said:
    “Feel anger at someone, your blood pressure goes up and your peace of mind is shattered. It is like holding a red hot coal in your hand and expecting the other person to feel the pain.”

    A famous author in my country said: “Nothing hurts the fool like humor!”. Joke about it, make fun of the situation, mock it if you must but please, pretty please don’t use anger. Anger is ALWAYS contra-productive…. ALWAYS!

  14. I understand what you’re saying, Peter. And you’re right in that the anger IS hurting me. The thing is that in my office experience suggests that management will let something slide if they think they can get away with it. Divide and conquer is still part of their methodology when it comes to managing staff. For members of our management team to SEE that someone like me is upset, there is a much better likelihood that they will feel compelled to address the situation. I think it sends them a message that they’ve finally gone too far. Humour (and I must say I’m feeling humourless about this particular issues) would not be appropriate for an issue as serious as this one. I’m not talking about some little issue … this is much more serious than that and nothing that management can or should be allowed to let slip into obscurity, exactly where they’d like it to go. An expression of anger (not rage) does have an appropriate place, I believe. And this situation is serious enough to warrant it, especially in light of management’s attempt to sweep something like this under the rug. Anger … not good. But, unfortunately, sometimes necessary.

  15. One of the intentions of Global Belly Laugh Day, January 24 is to give everyone the opportunity to connect through positive laughter.
    This is how one coporation joined the January 24th 1:24 p.m. Belly Laugh Bounce ‘Round the World:
    United States – Corporate Office – I heard about Belly Laugh Day on the radio this morning. I thought I’d help spread the word at work. I created a phony meeting invitation and sent it to everyone in my department; of course, scheduling the get together for 1:24 p.m. today.
    text of the meeting invitation:
    I have learned that today is Global “Belly Laugh” Day. Today commemorates the need we all share…to let down our guard for a moment and laugh for no particular reason at all. (Note; it’s also okay to chortle, giggle, howl, snicker, titter, chuckle, guffaw, snort, te-hee and crack-up. If you’re shy, you can just grin maniacally.) As I understand it, the time for the big event is set for 1:24 p.m. So, to get things rolling, I suggest that everyone gather around (a colleague’s) desk at around 1:23:45 and say something hilarious to get her started. (I’m thinking that (another colleague) can regale everyone with memories of his days as a professional surfer when he lived in Norway.) Once (first colleague) gets going laughing, it should be easy for the rest of us to follow. And, since we all know that (our department) is the model by which the rest of the company sets its behavior, once we start laughing loud and proud, the rest of the building should follow!
    This is the culture of another corporation:
    “Ummm I will be in a meeting with a bunch of Managers and my Campus President at 1:24 p.m. think they will mind the belly laugh thing?

  16. Hi Alexander.
    i have been reading your blogs for a while now and find most (if not all) of them great! this one struck a bit of a nerve though.
    recently i have been getting stressed out at work and even becoming depressed. i even got quite angry one day and smashed my keyboard accross my desk. it felt awesome at the time but didnt really do much in the long run. my work place offered me counciling at thier expense which i took. they said it was to help me to help myself to deal with my anger.
    after reading this blog though i felt i had to share.
    employees are not valued here. we are told to be “professional” (hate that word) and are just told to do our work.
    we have systems which stop us from doing our work.
    for example, we log a job in a call package and it takes about 30 to 60 minutes for that job to be finalise and sent to the appropriate person.
    to me thats just silly. but we are stung for it.
    i do try to retain my jovial nature but constantly find it under the foot of management.
    i bang my head wondering when they will realise that im no the one with anger issues, its the invironement i work in.
    sorry if im ranting.
    feedback appreciated.
    great site by the way, keep up the good work.

  17. I realise that this post is probably written about working in an office environment, but with regards to any job that includes employee-customer relations, such as sales jobs, I would be much more inclined to buy something from an enthusiastic salesman than someone robotic!

  18. When I worked at Ingles Grocery store #469 I often recieved comments of being “too happy”. They often thought I was under the influence of drugs and foreign substances but every drug comes down sooner or later. My positive attitude was probably just too much for them to handle and since I was fired 3 months ago, January 11th, 2010, I am sure they miss Me because they haven’t seen Me in uniform since. Now they can appreciate just how good of service I provided daily. I doubt anyone is coming close to My standards at the job now and it’s their loss.

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