Depending on who you ask, emotions are either a blessing or a curse in life—and in business. The past 20 years have seen an explosion of insights about the influence of emotions on leadership, decision-making, team dynamics and how we view the world. Some of these discoveries are intuitive (i.e., positive emotions tend to lead to more positive emotions), while others are counterintuitive (i.e., the expression of anger can empower a team). In addition to revealing that emotions can fuel better experiences in life, research has uncovered other surprising findings, including:
- If you wish to be more optimistic and take control of your life, you’re better off getting angry than sad.
- While sadness may cause you to feel more helpless in a situation, it will also make you feel more generous.
- Being happy will cause you to think less rigorously than when you’re fearful.
In decision-making research, there are two types of key emotions. “Integral” emotions are those associated with an actual decision. If you’re considering changing jobs, for example, you may feel fear about not finding another one or excitement about taking on a new challenge. Empirical studies have found that in these cases, emotions can be beneficial in making better decisions. In fact, scientific evidence reveals interesting insights about people who have sustained damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), the crucial area of the brain for integrating emotions and cognitive function. These individuals don’t feel emotions adequately and therefore make significantly poorer financial decisions, even though they rationally understand that their choices are suboptimal. (Sure, you may have made some financial mistakes in your life, but that doesn’t mean you have brain damage … read on.)
“Incidental” emotions are those associated with an unrelated event that influence present decisions. On sunny days, for example, people rate their life satisfaction higher than on cloudy days. Similarly, if you learn that a friend or relative has passed away, you’re much more likely to be pessimistic about your chances of finding a new job than someone who recently experienced gratitude. Why? Emotional overtones influence us, regardless of whether they’re associated with our current situation. Research about the effects of emotions on leadership also reveals curious insights. For instance, a study by Juan Madera and Brent Smith found that when a team or company faces an internal crisis, such as a failed product launch, leaders who express sadness rather than anger are viewed more favorably. However, when facing an external crisis, such as a hostile takeover, leaders who express anger rather than sadness are viewed more favorably. These examples help demonstrate the power of emotions and the important nuances that shape our communication and relationships. As leaders, team members, friends and family members, it’s also important to note that emotions are contagious! Research on emotional contagion finds that when managers are happy, employee happiness increases. When managers are negative, employees become negative. Given the power of your emotions and the impact they can have on those around you, it’s increasingly important to gain control of your emotional state. Here are some tips that have proven to be effective:
- Wait 10-minutes: When you feel an intense emotion, research suggests that a 10-minute waiting period before deciding or acting gives you time to re-center yourself. Simply set a timer on your phone or take a walk, and allow your emotions to roll through and dissipate.
- Reframe the situation: In academic research, this process is called reappraisal. It means that instead of trying to stop thinking about it, stop thinking about it negatively. For example, if you just got fired from your job, you can reframe it as an opportunity to upgrade your career instead of dwelling on feeling victimized. (In all likelihood, you weren’t happy in that job anyway!)
- Generate a counteracting emotion: Sometimes called the “dual-emotion solution,” you can counteract a negative emotion by inducing yourself to feel a different one. Stated another way, the solution to pollution is dilution. If you drink a vial of poison, you’ll likely die. But if you dump that same poison in the ocean and drink the same amount, you won’t even experience a stomach ache. The same is true for emotions.
Author David Morelli is the Executive Director of Executive Education at the Daniels College of Business. If you’d like to explore more about emotional intelligence, please check out our courses in Executive Education. Whether you’re new to leadership or a seasoned pro looking to grow, we’re happy to support you in bolstering your emotional intelligence and impact in the world.