You are about to go into a meeting with your boss. You don’t know what it is about; you don’t know the agenda; you didn’t call this meeting. Your boss’s secretary told you “it was very important” when she scheduled the meeting. How you react—whether you look afraid, angry, or sad; whether you keep your cool or seem too detached; what you say and how you act— could be crucial to the outcome. Would you trust how you would react emotionally, or, if need be, your ability to control your emotional behavior, or would you take a drink or down a Valium ahead of time?

It is hard not to behave emotionally when the stakes are high, which is when we are likely to feel strong emotions.

The quote above comes from Dr. Paul Ekman.  If you’ve ever heard of the show Lie to Me you are already familiar with his work.  Dr. Ekman is where the show takes its concept from.

If you haven’t seen it, it’s about an agency that specializes in reading people’s body and facial language to determine whether someone is lying or not.

Watching a clip of the show quickly helps you to see how Dr. Ekman is one of the world’s experts on human behavior.  I recently read one of his books Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life.

He shares several research findings in regards to how emotions are connected to behavior and communication.  As you read in the opening paragraph, how we handle our emotions can have a crucial effect on our success.

As you look at the examples of enjoyment, surprise, anger, and fear think how you can relate to these feelings in your own life and how you can apply emotional intelligence to make better decisions.


I wanted to start with enjoyment because we often don’t think of positive emotions when we think about how emotions affect us.

In the recent Oscars, this emotion was overflowing.  As I saw their excitement and happiness, I couldn’t help notice I was smiling and enjoying the moment along with them.  Just as negative emotions can infect their audiences, joyful emotions can do the same.

Similarly, most people will agree that a primary motivation of our lives is enjoyment.  We walk around a theme park, daydream by a window, or go out with friends so we can feel that joy.

But how does enjoyment fit in the workplace?  A happy workplace is a productive workplace, but even enjoyment can cause productivity issues if we don’t exercise some emotional intelligence.

Need evidence?  Think of Friday afternoons around the office.  Almost magically, at 3:00pm people start to work a little slower, go talk to their coworkers, and hit up Facebook.  Inside, you are thinking about what you want to do that night, the movies you might see, the friends you might go out with, the family you get to enjoy.  In general, most of our minds are not on work.

But Monday through Thursday aren’t immune either.  If enjoyment is a major motivator, what happens if we don’t get that from their work?  We go elsewhere for it.  Every office sees these moments of enjoyment seeking.  The guy in the cubicle next to you carefully looks around to see if anyone is watching and then quickly jumps on Facebook.  As soon as a manager enters the room, the mouse races up to the x in the top right corner of the browser, extinguishing that moment of “weakness” from any peering eyes.  Facebook, Farmville, and Youtube are the best friends of unhappy workers.


How Your Emotions Affect Behavior

Imagine you are a photographer for the New York Post.  You get a call to go to a building to photograph a promotional stunt.  A woman there is going to hold on to a cable with just her teeth as she is lifted up the tall building.  You get there a little late, she’s already being raised.  Then you start to notice a strained look on her face as she loses grip.  Her body is now suddenly falling, you try to follow her descent hoping to get a clear picture before any accident happens when she reaches the bottom.  The picture above is what you get.

Thankfully she survived, but the photo captures a brilliant example of surprise as two men saw exactly what you were imagining.

But how does surprise affect ones behavior?  Take the two men in this picture.  What if you were to ask them right after witnessing this to complete a timed math test.  How well do you expect them to concentrate?  How has their heartbeat changed?  What is on their minds?  Do you want them to make an important decision right away?

How Your Emotions Affect Behavior 2

Take a personal example.   This past November I was in San Fransisco touring Pier 39.  The pier is known for the quality of the street performers, one being the Bush Man.  He literally disguises himself as a bush and sits still until he can leap out at an unsuspecting victim and thus earn his tip.  I happened to catch him in the act and see just what kind of effect this had on people.

The woman here is obviously surprised.  Now let’s look at her behavior.  Her body is moving to her left, away from what is surprising her.  Does she notice there is a bike coming into that path? I don’t think so.  If you felt no surprise or emotions would you make the same decision?  This particular street performer understands emotional intelligence and how to profit from it.   Observe what he does next.  After scaring the daylights out of his victim, he immediately runs up to the woman and asks for a tip.  Her brain is scattered, she fumbles through her purse and gives him the first bill she finds.  Now compare that to a homeless person coming up to you with you fully aware and expecting the request for spare change.   Our wits are with us and we do what comes naturally to us, give a reasonable amount or turn down the request.

As fair warning, I saw the bush man do this to a few others.  Not everyone reacted as positively.  In fact, one lady after being frightened, took out a small umbrella and started giving him a quick beating.  Which leads perfectly to our next emotion.


How Your Emotions Affect Behavior 3

Back in 1992, a twenty-six-year-old man and self proclaimed ninja, raped and murdered Maxine Kenny’s daughter.  David Lynn Scott III was arrested, but the trial could not proceed until five years after the murder.  After the conviction, Maxine and her husband were able to testify.  Maxine addressed Scott, saying;

So you think you’re a ninja? Get real! This is not feudal Japan and even if it were, you could never be a ninja because you’re a coward! You sneaked around at night, dressed in dark clothing, carrying weapons, and preyed on innocent, defenseless women. . . . You raped and killed for the false sense of power it gave you. You’re more like a dirty, disgusting cockroach that slips between the walls at night and contaminates everything. I have no sympathy for you! You raped, you tortured, and brutally killed my daughter Gail, stabbing her not once, but seven times. You showed no mercy as she desperately fought for her life as shown by the numerous defensive wounds on her hands. You don’t deserve to live.”

The whole time she spoke to him, David showed no remorse.  He simply smiled.

As Maxine returned to her seat she hit him on the head, instantly alerting the guards and her husband to restrain her.

Did Maxine have the right to be angry? Of course.  Did she have the right to hit the murderer of her daughter on the head? Probably so, but was she reacting this way because of emotion or careful thought?

Anger is a very powerful emotion.  Ekman says, “It takes a near-saintly character not to respond angrily to another person’s anger, especially when that person’s anger seems unjustified and self-righteous.”

If this emotion is present in the work place or home it can be debilitating. Even worse, if those in the environment don’t have the emotional intelligence to appropriately react to it, it can scale even further out of control.


Go back to the story in the introduction.  Have you ever been called into the office of your boss or a manager without much explanation?  Does your head race with “what if’s” as you explore possible scenarios?

When I was at my last job staff were fired frequently, let go without anything but a moments notice.  Anytime someone was sent to the back office to speak with the CEO, fear shadowed the floor like milk spilling from a tipped cup.  Strain filled our voices as we tried to make more cold calls.  Our thoughts fled to whether or not they would be returning to work the next day, and then to whether we were next.

The company suffered greatly as many of the employees worked with one foot in and out of the business as they searched for work elsewhere.

In all my experiences of employment, I’ve never had a harder time focusing and being productive than when faced with fear in the workplace.  Even worse, the emotion was contagious.  Paranoia filled most conversations during lunch.  Staff rarely stayed in the office to eat lunch, sometimes just so they could express truthfully how the job made them feel.

Some understanding of emotional intelligence would have gone a long way here.  If leaders could have picked up on the emotions being expressed around them and put in policies to resolve these concerns, many of the talented employees they had might have stayed.

From the other side, managing those feelings from the knowledge worker’s perspective was very difficult and it affected my work completely.  Having the resources and tools to resolve those fears would have saved our whole team plenty of stress and dissatisfaction.


image courtesy of city data