Why it’s okay to show emotion in the workplace

I recently attended a training course about neuroscience, and learnt more about what happens in the brain and how it impacts performance at work. I also keep coming across research and articles on this subject so it feels topical – this issue therefore summarises some of the fundamentals of the structure of the brain and its effect on our emotions and behaviour.

Why emotions are helpful

These days, we are unlikely to be attacked by a sabre-toothed tiger; we are most likely to be affected by emotional stressors either at home or at work. But the flight or flight response is still hard-wired within us.

Fight or flight feelings are important because they propel you to do something.  Bottling them up is unhealthy – it doesn’t make them go away, it just leads to physical or mental problems in the long term.

If something doesn’t feel right – a conversation in a meeting, or someone behaving in a certain way – it’s useful to pay attention to your emotional response. Emotions are therefore helpful cues, and especially useful if we don’t have data – this ‘gut feel’ becomes our guide, so don’t be afraid to listen to it.

I sometimes find people have forgotten to listen to their gut feeling, or they don’t value it as much as they should – either based on their training or the work culture – and they just respect data. If the data is not available they can become stuck.  Ideally you will look for data AND listen to your gut feel.

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift; the rational mind is the faithful servant.”

The structure of the brain

In this video, Dr Daniel Siegel presents a simple ‘hand’ model of the brain. He’s talking to parents, but the model is equally applicable to people at work.

The brain is comprised of three regions:

  1. The brainstem
  2. The limbic area
  3. The cortex

The brainstem receives input from the body and sends input back in order to regulate basic body processes.  It also determines whether we activate our fight or flight response.

The limbic area works closely with the brainstem and the body to create our basic drives and emotions. It evaluates our current situation – “is this good or bad?”. We move towards the good and away from the bad (see the SCARF model introduced in my collaboration article last month).

The limbic area also helps us form relationships and create memories (using two clusters of neurons called the amygdala and the hippocampus).

The cortex is the outer layer of the brain. It allows us to have ideas and concepts, and to create.

The pre-frontal cortex at the top of the brain (behind your forehead) helps regulate your impulses and moderate your social behaviour. It’s responsible for executive functions such as planning, decision-making, aligning thoughts with actions, focus, and working memory.

It’s not fully formed until age 25 – which explains a lot about teenage behaviour! They are experiencing so much but their brain is not yet sufficiently developed to deal with it. Remember this if you have teenage kids – and remember to breathe/count to 10, and – if all else fails – remember to open the wine 🙂

Positive and Negative Stress   

You may think that all stress is bad, but there are two types of stress:

  • Distress: Negative
  • Eustress: Positive

When you are distressed, three things happen simultaneously:

  • Your physiological state is affected e.g. heart rate rises
  • You perceive the stressor (person or situation that caused the stress) as negative
  • You do not feel in control

When distressed, the pre-frontal cortex malfunctions, and the limbic system takes over.

There are also cellular changes in the hippocampus. This decreases your attention, perception, short-term memory, ability to learn, and ability to find words.  This is why employees don’t perform at their best if they are ‘scared’ at work.

We operate at our best – Eustress – when we are at an optimal level of arousal (stress), as show in the diagram below:

Robert Yerkes and John Dodson first described this law in 1908 following some research on rats and how electric shocks either enhanced or impaired performance.  This law suggests that there is a link between performance and arousal (stress).  Increased arousal can help performance – for example before a presentation, exam or sporting competition – if you are in the optimal zone. If, however, the stress is too much for you, your performance will drop.

Showing emotion – why might this be a good thing

In this video of her recent TEDx talk, Dr Emily Grossman suggests that emotional openness is essential for what she calls the three Cs:

  • Compassion: Being open to the feelings of your colleagues, so you are sufficiently motivated to support them. Also, to be moved by the needs of others so that, in the case of science, it drives discovery of treatments or cures
  • Collaboration: Being open to different perspectives so you can create better things together
  • Creativity: Feeling safe so you can connect effectively with your imagination

Emily is talking about a science environment, but her ideas apply to any other workplace too.

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. Sometimes I feel I am right but I don’t know it.”

Top tips

Amy Arsten, Professor of Neuro-biology at Yale University, calls the pre-frontal cortex the ‘Goldilocks of the brain’. In order to function at its optimal ability, it needs to have the right amount of stimulation. That means:

  • Stress
  • Information
  • Chemicals
  • Water
  • Energy
  • Memories
  • Sleep
  • Sunlight (to develop serotonin, the ‘happiness hormone’)

I’ve said this many times before, but it’s essential to look after yourself both physically and mentally. That means getting plenty of exercise, sleep, healthy eating, and fresh air while outside enjoying nature.

Your brain is 65% water and 35% glucose, so eating fruit is good for it.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t perform well when I’m hungry. It seems I’m not the only one!

In 2011, Danziger researched 1,100 parole applications made over 10 months in Israel. He found the chance of getting parole depended on the time of day. If the judge was hungry, their energy levels were low, and their brain went into ‘safe’ mode. Sending the person back to prison felt like the safest thing to do.

Also, work at creating an environment where you and your people feel it’s OK to express their true thoughts and feelings.

We learn most when things don’t go how we planned, so we have to feel it’s ok to take risks.  That means a culture that values experimentation, learning, feedback, and admitting when we don’t know.

Q. What can you do to take best care of yourself physically and mentally?

Q. How can you create an environment that enables people to relax and give of their best?

Your mindset may be the single biggest factor in your success and wellbeing. Next month, we explore this and how it can enable rather than limit you.

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