Transparent Intelligence

How vulnerability at work increases emotional intelligence

Put hundreds of imperfect humans into tight quarters day-after-day, loaded up with challenging goals and pressure-inject the situation with uncontrollable external factors…and what do you expect you’ll get?  There are lots of answers to that question so let me just tell you what I’m getting at.  Humans are emotional creatures and they don’t leave their feelings at home when they commute to work.  No, emotions show up at work every day.  And grace-based leaders are equipped to handle emotions in ways that honor their people and lift up their organizations.

The New Oxford American Dictionary defines emotions as: instinctive or intuitive feeling as distinguished from reasoning or knowledge.  Furthermore, this word originated in mid 16th century France and it denoted a public disturbance or commotion.

Do you see where I’m headed?

The emotions of our people are often disconnected from reasoning, and they more-often-than-not…end up causing a commotion if we mismanage them. Like MacGyver dismantling a ticking time bomb, gracious leaders are equipped with the knowledge of how to dismantle the dirty bombs that are our peoples’ emotions.

Not to over-complicate this, I propose 4 things to keep in mind as you help your employees process the emotions they bring to work.

#1: Identify the emotions

Interestingly, new research out of the University of Glasgow suggests there may only be 4 emotions: anger, fear, happiness and sadness.  Others suggest surprise and disgust also make the short list.  Regardless, there’s a finite list of emotions (albeit with nearly infinite variations).  If you seek to be a grace based leader who helps his or her people process their emotions, you have to understand first that your employee is having an emotional moment and second, what the specific emotions is that’s consuming them.

#2: See behind and beyond the emotions

Emotions aren’t required to be honest or accurate.  In fact, they often lie.  At the same time, there’s often an underlying trigger that fires our emotions.  As such there’s a story behind the our employees’ emotions.  And likewise, there’s a future beyond the emotional outbursts.  Grace based leaders know this.  They recognize that employee emotions are not attacks on us.  They’re not indictments of our failures.  Not at all.  Our peoples’ emotions are their instinctive and intuitive feelings they haven’t yet processed with logical thought and reason.  That’s where we can wade in and help them.

#3: Help your people think through their emotions

If emotions are simply feelings that our people haven’t processed through thought and reason, then there’s immediately something we can do to help.  We can throw

them a life preserver of objective reason. Daniel Goleman, a Ph.D. psychologist and author of the New York Times bestseller Emotional Intelligence said, “True compassion means not only feeling another’s pain but also being moved to help relieve it.”  As leaders, we often hold a unique position in our peoples’ lives – to help them.  We spend a lot of time with our people.  We see them at their best and their worst.  We quickly notice if they’re happy or sad, focused or distracted.  Our people share personal things and they often give us permission to speak into their lives in ways nobody else can.  This is an honor and an obligation.  And when our team members emote, we should happily invest in them by helping them think through their emotions (whether good or bad).

#4: Seek to make peace when emotions run high

Sometimes our employees’ emotions are self-contained.  Other times they spill over onto relationships with co-workers.  In Matthew 5 (verse 9) Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”  Whether or not you’re a Christ follower, this is a powerful thing to consider.  In the context of emotions, when they run hot and aren’t processed with reason, the boiling over causes relational damage.   Leaders have an obligation to their companies, and their immediate teams, to make sure their people are relationally connected.  When the connective tissue breaks down, emotions are often the culprit.  We can bring healing by assuming the role of peace maker.

If you do these 4 things on a consistent basis, you’ll help your people enjoy victory over their momentary emotions.  You’ll also create an environment in which your people have the freedom to express themselves.  One vital thing we do as leaders is create the atmosphere within our workplace.  And an atmosphere in which people have the freedom to be vulnerable and express their emotions is a critical element of a healthy workplace.  Conversely, if everyone comes to work with stuffed emotions, your workplace is pressure-cooked.  And under extreme pressure, even the smallest of incidents can be explosive.

By creating an atmosphere in which your people have the freedom to be vulnerable, you’re allowing reason to supplant emotion – through healthy conversation that transforms unfiltered feelings into maturely-processed thoughts.  Ultimately, this raises the emotional intelligence of your entire team.

Question: Have you ever seen the life preserver of logical thought and reason save an employee from their emotions?  Please share what you learned or how it transformed your team.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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4 thoughts on “Transparent Intelligence

  1. Some people’s natural hardwiring gives them a personality bent that naturally defaults to emotional responses. Highly creative people, artists, musicians, people with a high degree of empathy tend to process a lot of life through their emotional filters. And the world around them gets to be blessed thRough their creativity, art, music, and empathy.

    But, like you say, emotions don’t necessarily have to give accurate readings to a given situation. Sometimes their emotions are actually causing them to react to a situation in a way that is a complete contradiction to the facts surrounding it. This can spill over to the people around them in toxic ways. So helping them process it through the filters of the truth, the facts, logic, and and common sense is a gracious gift we can give them. But I think it starts with an assumed respect for their emotions, regardless of how irrational their emotions happen to be.

    • Thanks for jumping into the conversation Tim. I couldn’t agree more with your comment. As a creative person, I have a natural bent that causes me to lean towards more emotional responses. It’s extremely discouraging to me when people either dismiss my feelings, or tell me how I should feel. What’s much more helpful and energizing is when those around me ask curious questions or share perspectives that help me think beyond the emotion and thoughtfully respond (vs reacting). I like your notion of starting, “with an assumed respect for their emotions.” Good word friend! Thank you.

  2. There is a benefit that Dr. Paul Ekman has spent the last 50 years confirming that facial expressions for the 6 emotions (anger, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise and disgust) are universal, regardless of culture, race, age, gender, etc. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that emotions are easy to detect. But as Michael wrote ” One vital thing we do as leaders is create the atmosphere within our workplace.”. Both Dr. Ekman and Dr. James Gross (of Stanford University) have studied and observed that the concealment or containment of emotion has serious physical health impacts such as strain on the heart and elevated blood pressure, to name a few.

    I am certain that most of us have experienced the rush of an emotion at work (happiness at a deal closing, disgust for a co-workers decision or sadness when a beloved co-worker departs) though the severity may differ between the individuals on a team. This brought to mind two questions…

    1. Michael raised a great point that shouldn’t be missed; as leaders of a team, how do you ensure that your teams are “relationally connected” though members are not all in the place on the emotional intelligence spectrum?

    2. To what degree is it beneficial to have teams experience emotion? I think of the unshakable bond between soldiers who served in combat together.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comments and questions David. Your second question made me think about Organizing Genius (a fantastic book by Warren Bennis I read nearly 2 decades ago).

      In his book, Bennis studied numerous generic and specific high-performing teams from across a variety of industries and settings (e.g. the Apple launch team, U.S. Military boot camp, fraternity rush classes, Clinton’s re-election campaign team, etc.). He was attempting to identify the common conditions that perhaps predict or determine whether a team has the potential to be high-performing.

      My memory is a bit foggy, but he unearthed an interesting list of conditions including: younger demographic, common unifying goal, high-stress environment, short deadline, rigorous physical demands, and a host of other things. As I recall his list, I can’t help but think that the sum total of those qualities makes them environments ripe for high emotion. It would seem that the key to high-performing team is not avoiding emotions. Rather, it’s figuring out how to harness the emotions – using them as fuel to propel the group towards that common, yet perhaps seemingly-unattainable goal. Bennis himself pointed out that soldiers making it through boot camp (and experiencing the battlefield together), form a bond unlike any other.

      I’ll think more about your question, but I’m convinced that experiencing emotions together (vs silently stuffing them), is more conducive to high-performance.

      On a related note, if you’re interested in reading more on this topic, Organizing Genius is on my top 20 list for leaders. Here’s a link: