I love it when people say:  “It’s not personal, it’s business.” Because it’s always personal.  If it involves human beings—which, contrary to popular belief, business is all about human beings—it is personal.

When we say “it’s not personal, it’s business,” what we mean is “I feel fine and if you don’t, too bad.”  Or it assumes that when people come to work they are somehow magically able to turn off their emotions and be completely rational.

Imagine our workplaces if we really could turn off our emotions. Sure, maybe you would avoid some of the drama, some of the outbursts, some of the anger or disappointment, but you would also miss the joy, the delight, the surprise, the camaraderie, the friendships, and all of the positive things that come along with working in modern organizations.

The reality is that people are thinking and feeling beings, and that we actually feel before we think.  In fact, emotions are a large part of why our species survived long enough to invent calculus, the space shuttle, and Angry Birds.

Imagine your great-great-great-great-great-great+ grandfather walking through the woods 10,000 years ago.   He comes around a tree and comes face to face with a bear.  He has two choices: tackle the bear or run away. Fight or flight. Your grandfather probably runs—it is a bear after all—but maybe he comes back with a couple of buddies and makes bear soup.

It’s not the choice that matters in this case, but how quickly your grandfather made his decision.  The limbic system—the part of your brain responsible for emotions, among other things—shifts into high gear when it encounters a stimulus it deems a threat.  For your grandfather, it dumped adrenaline into his body, changed his brain’s chemistry, shutting down some systems and stimulating others, shunted blood to the large muscle groups in his limbs, and narrowed his vision, all in the service of helping him survive his encounter with the bear.

Fast forward 10,000 years.  You walk into a meeting and someone says “What’s wrong with you? You are thirty minutes late and if we fail, it’s because of you!”

Your limbic system doesn’t know the difference between a coworker and a bear; both feel like threats.  Your body fills with adrenaline.  Your muscles clench. The parts of your brain responsible for learning and creativity shut down (if you see a bear, it’s a terrible time to brainstorm possibilities or get too creative).  Your vision narrows.  You become physically incapable of listening or being rational.  You are what Daniel Goleman in his book Primal Leadership calls “emotionally hijacked.”

It’s no wonder that modern organizations are filled with conflict, hurt feelings, and people on tilt.   We are often at the mercy of our emotions, for good or for ill.

The good news is that we can develop our emotional self awareness with time and effort.

The first step is noticing our emotions.  Often our bodies know how we are feeling before we do—knots in the stomach, clenched fists, or a throbbing headache are signs something may be up. The second step is reflecting on why we feel strongly—what triggered us?  Chances are, that trigger is tied to one of our values, which has been plucked in some way.  Finally, if we are hijacked, and we recognize it, we should be able to make a more (but not perfectly) rational choice in the moment.

The next time you feel strong emotions coming on, try this: push your mental Pause Button.  Take a breath.  Think: “What do I need to do in this situation to be effective?” Give your rational brain a chance to catch up with your emotional brain.  You still may be emotionally hijacked—but you will have a chance to make a better decision than just fight or flight.



Tom Epperson

Tom Epperson

Dr. Tom Epperson is the President of InnerWill, and an instructor in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Executive MBA program. Tom is a certified business coach and has a Doctorate in Leadership from The George Washington University. Tom works with clients on cultural transformation, leadership development, executive coaching, and igniting individual and organizational potential. Previously, Tom served as the HR Director for Luck Companies, and played a significant role as one of the architects of Luck Companies’ cultural transformation.

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