The pitfalls and potential of being feeling creatures who think

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We used to believe that humans were thinking creatures that occasionally felt, but PET scans in the last decade have confirmed that humans are actually feeling creatures who occasionally think. Turns out, we are feeling machines. And our managed emotions can be medicine. Alternatively, emotions that get ignored can make us sick.

While emotions play a big role in the workplace, they’re not always taken seriously by leaders. Feelings may seem too gauzy and end up brushed aside as noise. But neuroscience and new brain research reveals how critical the recognition of emotion can be to your success or failure — either driving trust and connection or leading to depletion and plummeting productivity.

Feeling Burnout

We live in a perfect storm of stress, characterized by the ongoing affects of a global pandemic, political and social unrest, and our personal challenges that have arisen as a result. These environmental pressures combined with new workplace stress — fear of job loss, doing more with less, decreases in engagement, remote and hybrid teams — have had many American workers crying “burnout” since 2020.

In 2019, the World Health Organization declared burnout an occupational syndrome, defining it this way:

“Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

And it’s expensive. Researchers estimate burnout costing up to $190 billion in health care costs annually, not to mention the expense of disengaged employees (34% of their salary) and the expensive/predictable turnover that happens as a result.

At the core of burnout, as defined by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in 1975, is one of three dimensions. Let’s focus on one: emotional exhaustion. The feeling of being so depleted there’s nothing left to give your job.

Emotionally exhausted

Emotions are involuntary, neurological responses that happen in our bodies with a beginning, middle and end. Emily and Amelia Nagoski write on the topic in their new book:

“In short, emotions are tunnels. If you go all the way through them, you get to the light at the end. Exhaustion happens when we get stuck in an emotion.”

If a feeling begins in our nervous system, but we squash it down and bury it because we’re busy trying to hit our deadline, we only make it halfway through the tunnel. Our immune system can’t get its voice heard over the stress, so we hustle our presentation across the finish line, and collapse right after. Emotional exhaustion is about caring too much for too long. This is biological: We’ve evolved this way to safely outrun hungry tigers.

But your hungry boss isn’t exactly the same thing. We need tools — such as physical movement or even laughter, according to the Nagoski sisters — to enhance our judgement when faced with emotionally-charged scenarios at work.

Emotional Intelligence

Another study by Maslach proves there’s a positive relationship between emotional intelligence and burnout syndrome. Emotional intelligence acts protectively, like a buffer, against burnout syndrome and even reduces it. Specifically, Maslach found the higher the emotional intelligence, the lower the burnout syndrome.

Emotional intelligence, or EQ, is the ability to manage emotions. EQ is how your IQ gets used. IQ gets you hired; EQ gets you fired, as the old adage goes. And EQ is believed to be a function of our personalities. But while our personality drives are hardwired and stable over our lifetimes, our EQ is soft and moldable.

The good news? We can leverage EQ assessments to understand how much of each EQ competency we have, giving us the power to choose where we ought to build more.

People who have high EQs are good at identifying their own emotions, why they may be feeling those emotions, and how their emotions might affect the people around them. They’re good at listening to the symptoms their body presents and then responding accordingly. This dramatically decreases risk of burnout.

These same folks are also often skilled at identifying with the emotions of others. There are big economic and productivity benefits to this:

  • 90% of top performers are high in EQ
  • Emotional intelligence is responsible for 58% of performance in all types of jobs

On average, people with a high EQ make more money, and leaders with high EQ have departments with significantly higher growth.

Exhaustion happens when you get stuck in an emotion. Bolster your teams for the inevitable burn in this emotionally charged world. If you don’t have EQ data, get some. Then develop the emotional intelligence of your people. This could be your team’s greatest defense against whatever feelings 2021 has in store.

Be well to lead well.


Want to hear more from Leadership Consultant Mandy Haskett? Read her previous article “Embracing uncertainty ‘bird by bird'”.

This article originally appeared in the Indianapolis Business Journal on November 13, 2020.