Getting Emotional—Why Emotion Has a Place in the Business World
By Chuck Cusumano
Emotional: adj. Of, or relating to emotion; dominated by or prone to emotion; appealing to or arousing emotion; markedly assumed or agitated in feeling or sensibilities.
That is the definition of emotional; according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, anyway.
This word has been around for what seems like forever, but it was first used in print in 1834 –and according to that same dictionary, it is in the top 1% of words looked up.
That is sort of wild to think about, right?
At this point, you are probably wondering why I am defining emotional before even diving into the blog – that is because this blog is going to be emotional (you know, dominated by or prone to emotion or appealing to or arousing emotion). Some of you may even say it borders on a rant.
This word falling into the top 1% of the most looked-up words got me thinking – why would so many of us make the effort to try to define this word?
Is it because we have been labeled “too emotional” before? Maybe someone close to us called us “emotionally unavailable”? Or maybe someone told us once at a job, “Leave your opinions and emotions at the door, Chuck. We deal in facts and processes here.”
Ok, I gave myself up here and I am definitely clueing you in on my age, but that did actually happen to me. That person was very proud to “set me straight” on that particular day. The wildest part about that experience?
This did not happen on a 1:1 basis – this person chose to give me this spiel in front of a group of my peers. He even interrupted me during a formal presentation I was giving to the entire executive team at a Fortune 250 company!
That memory still evokes an emotional response. But you can probably tell, right?
Even though this happened over 25 years ago, I am willing to bet that most of you are experiencing – or have experienced – something just like this, even if the words were a little different.
All in all, I am so glad that the “set me straight” experience happened. It led me to invent a saying that would remind me to never walk that path again. If you have ever worked with me, you probably know it well:
It is great to have an opinion – but please, base it on some facts or data. I am a true, dedicated believer in that way of thinking.
That is exactly why we are talking about the word emotional today.
Reclaiming the Reputation of Emotion
There is no denying it – "emotional" has gotten a bad rep. It is used and abused in so many poorly-written performance reviews, in 1-on-1 meetings, and (the worst offender—in my opinion, anyway) promotion and hiring decisions.
“Chuck seems a little too emotional to handle the rigorous day-to-day decision-making that is required for a management position.”
“Sally is great with her team, but I am not sure she can set her emotions aside and make the tough decisions that are necessary as a leader in our department.”
This might seem like a dated way of thinking, but I still hear comments like this every day while consulting with companies.
Maybe this is the reason that “emotional” is one of the most looked-up words?
Could it be that, as people, we are confused and unsure of when and how to deal with our own emotions appropriately? What place do they have in business? In our relationships?
(If you are wondering why I am talking about relationships in terms of business, that is because your company and you do have a relationship with each other. Furthermore, you and your clients have relationships – and they better be good, or they will not be your client for long).
A relationship is run on emotions – if there are no emotions, then we cannot feasibly call it a relationship, it is just a transaction. Ask yourself: do you really want transactional customers or employees?
Feedback Feeds Into Emotion
Emotions are critical because they are part of the process known as feedback.
We all need feedback in our daily lives.
Without feedback (which we will define as information coming back to you), good communication is impossible.
Think about it this way, with a modern example:
You send a text to a co-worker. You do not get a text back. So begins the miscommunication. You start asking yourself questions like, “Did I send the text too late at night?” or “Is he ignoring me because I cut him off in the meeting yesterday?.” What a jerk, you think. He does this to you constantly – probably so that he can have all the control and power. Or maybe, just maybe, he is busy. Maybe he will get back to me as soon as he can?
One of those thoughts is probably correct in some way – or maybe all of them are. But without any feedback or response, you are lost. You have no information to act on (except, perhaps, past experiences).
In relationship counseling, if one of the partners stops sharing their emotions, it is a sign that a relationship could be near its end. Why? Because disengagement typically means someone is no longer interested and it is no longer worth their time to invest their emotional energy any longer.
Feedback is an enormous part of our everyday lives. In fact, the entire social media empire is built on feedback – without LIKES or FOLLOWERS, your posts (and therefore, you, in this example) are considered to have no value.
Sad as it is to say, there are untold psychological consequences and social alienation because no one engaged enough to give you that feedback you crave. Or, in other words, people did not become emotional for your content.
That begs the question. If all of this is true, then why would we ever want someone to not be emotional with us? To not want to share, to not invest the time to show how much they care?
Emotional, Fired-Up, & Ready to Change the World
How does all of this fit into the business world?
I think about it this way.
An angry customer is an engaged customer. A raving fan as a customer is an engaged customer.
They are both emotionally charged – just on different ends of the spectrum.
If you have any customer service experience in the workplace, then you may have experienced how seamlessly an angry customer can become a raving fan if you learn to address their problems and exceed their expectations.
Instead, we spend valuable time and resources on the indifferent or disengaged customer, trying to get them to tell others about our business or fill out a customer satisfaction survey. In effect, we are striving to get them to engage—in other words, to be more emotional 😳. (See how we even have an entire digital language that was solely created to assist us in trying to express our emotions? The emoji!)
With our employees and gig-workers, engagement is the key topic of our time. Often, we hear things from companies like, “We need to engage with the workforce” or “We need to do an employee engagement survey so we can see what our employees think about XYZ.”
These are all real statements I hear each month. And they always make me pause, thinking: "Wait, what?”
Now you want to know what your employees are feeling? Now you want to know what they think?
I do not plan to expend the ink here describing the hundreds of studies that show us that employee engagement is correlated directly to productivity, retention, and overall satisfaction – more than a wage bump ever can accomplish.
The irony of this is most of the companies we are working with are fighting for the best talent. They know that the best talent wants so much more than just what is considered good pay.
They want to be heard. They want to be seen. They want a boss (and a company) that shows they care. They want to show-off (communicate) where and for whom they work for and work with! They want the world to know they are here and they are doing something important.
With this in mind, maybe a more correct statement should be something like this:
“We want our employees, contractors, customers, stakeholders, and everyone else we wish to have a relationship with to share and express their individual emotions – but just enough, and they need to keep their emotions in a box that we feel comfortable with.”
Sounds a bit strange, right? In other words, share your emotions, just do not get too emotional.
The problem with this approach is that the person who is asking for the information and listening to the response is also the person who is now judging how much intensity is given and how much they want to allow.
"Sally, we love your passion for your work and for your team, we just need you to pull it back some when it comes to sharing your ideas at the management meeting.”
A more recent example I ran into on a call with a senior leader from a firm we consult with went something like this:
Client: “Chuck, I am really feeling we made a mistake promoting Sam (alias) into the project lead role. He came to the first meeting with all these crazy ideas on how he thinks we can change this and change that. I pulled him aside after the meeting and told him he needed to slow down, follow the established protocols and systems that are in place, and let things play out some before he starts trying to change it all.”
Me: “So, how did he take that advice?”
Client: “He listened and I thought he understood what I was telling him. I mean, I was trying to save him from alienating himself from the rest of his team.”
Me: “So why do you think it was a mistake to promote him? Am I missing something here?”
Client: “Well, his direct supervisor thinks he is in over his head because he is so disengaged. I thought he could handle the additional responsibility of leading the project, but clearly we should have waited.”
When I talked to Sam later that week, he said he was feeling disengaged. He was under the impression the company recruited him out of college because they wanted fresh ideas to help move the company into a more competitive position. So, he took their offer. Now, he is hearing “wait your turn,” and “that is not how we do it here,” or “why are you trying to change things?”
Basically – to paraphrase Sam – he feels like they are telling him to sit down, shut up, work late, and stay fired up because we like your energy and passion, but just channel it into what we want.
Maybe I am being emotional, but I was thoroughly fired up after talking to Sam!
Leaders, I am talking to you: When you get a thoroughbred like Sam, you cannot ask him to regulate his passion, bottle it up, and only release it when it is controlled on your terms.
You have to let that thoroughbred run. Even if it makes you uncomfortable. That is, after all, what change does to us; it makes us uncomfortable as we prepare for better things.
That is what great employees do: they are like those life-of-the-party friends. You cannot expect them to turn off who they are, it is just part of their personality. Asking anyone to stop being who they are is a recipe for heartbreak and alienation.
We are all humans. Walking, talking organisms driven by our emotions, passions, and dreams.
If you want to engage with other humans in any type of meaningful relationship, start by letting people express those emotions. If you want to be great at building relationships, leading teams, or fostering compelling conversations, ask and seek out what it is that the person across from you is most passionate (emotional) about. Then let them express it in the way they need to.
Do this, and see how much more gets accomplished when you unleash that energy!
Suffice it to say, I do not work for that former Fortune 250 company anymore. And they are not nearly as great as they once were, either. My thoughts on this? They recruited many of us for our track record and ability to get results, but then tell us to get those results without the tools we were blessed with!
My solution to all of this emotional ranting: Embrace those people who may be emotional by your standards. Allow yourself to be a little uncomfortable. And if you need some help with these types of individuals, drop us a line at Hello@thejoshuagroupconsulting.com.
But be aware before you reach out to us – we are all a bunch of fired-up, over-the-top, passionate, do-whatever-it-takes-to-get-the-job-done type of individuals! We will push your status quo and challenge you to get outside of the box you put yourself or company in.
If that is emotional, well, then guilty as charged. But ask yourself: do you really want us working with and for your competition? Or would you rather be a little uncomfortable and know that you were surrounded by passionate, emotional, and fired-up teammates? The choice is truly yours!