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Emotions are valuable signals: don’t shoot the messenger.

As children, how often have we heard the phrases “Why so glum?”  and “Cheer up” and “Snap out of it”, as though how we are always masters of our own emotions. As though being happy or sad or angry is always within our control. As though there are emotions that are acceptable and other emotions that are not. As if there are good emotions and bad emotions. These phrases uttered in all innocence have directed our thoughts and behaviors,  hard wiring us to avoid certain emotions and thus limiting our potential. Emotions are part of who we are fundamentally. Emotions are powerful signals.

Emotions cannot be controlled. They are primal reactions that are fundamental to our social interactions. There are other animals who display emotions such as horses or geese.  They are a key part of how we connect to ourselves, to others and how we live as a species. Yet we don’t have any control over them. They are triggered based on external situations that vary from other people’s emotional states or to environmental factors. Emotions are a fact of life.

Emotions are neither good nor bad. Depending on the psychological theories you look at, there are around 6 basic emotions (Joy, fear, disgust, sadness, surprise, anger). The belief that some emotions are positive and other negative is etched deeply within us and I would expect reactions from my readers on this point. Yet, emotions don’t define whether we are good or bad. It all depends what we do with them. As we can see today, anxiety prevails, yet people are mobilizing their energy in many different ways to fight a virus. Fear has a positive echo. In the same way, joy can lead to haste and lead us to make mistakes. Brene Brown makes a strong case about this when she talks about vulnerability.

Emotions influence our thinking and bodily reactions. In the brain, it is the amygdala that is involved in the experiencing of emotions and from here, there are neuronal pathways to the prefrontal cortex, that part of the brain responsible for decision making. There is a biological connection between our emotions, thinking, memory and body. Some emotions feel good others feel bad, so we tend to repeat or avoid certain emotional triggers. Emotions can cloud our judgment or they can improve our physical, intellectual, and social performance. Our emotions are actually a strong indicator of how successful we can be in the workplace. Daniel Goleman demonstrates this correlation in all of his writing on the subject.

Emotions are propellers. Beyond the etymology, emotions are what moves us. They are what drives us and others to act and react to a situation, to a behavior. Their intensity and duration depend on our state of mind and what triggers the emotions in the first place. This is the case with values for instance. Emotions are shared and intensified in a group. Freeze, flight fight reactions being one automatic reaction triggered by fear. Emotional echoes can be extremely powerful and it is in our interest to try to manage the echoes. When they last for any length of time, our emotions turn into feelings.

Emotions defined what make us tick, they structure we are, how we think and react as individuals and as a group. Emotions are at the core of our values. It is not about giving up on reason for passion, but to find the right balance. Emotions are about much more than happiness; they are about caring for people and giving purpose. Nothing is as powerful or reassuring and organizations must relearn to tame their echo and harness their power to make a difference as a company or an institution. This is a profound cultural revolution for many of us, but the stakes are worth it to overcome the strange times we are living in.