Derailed Emotions

By Morrison, Daven | Public Management, January-February 2009 | Go to article overview

Derailed Emotions


Morrison, Daven, Public Management


"The meeting was going fine until the mayor got all emotional."

The holiday parties are in your rearview mirror, and 2010 unfolds before you. Time to jump into work. Time spent during the past two months trying to listen to your family should not be considered time lost or wasted. When you spend time with your family, your personal balance will benefit as you understand people better, understand yourself better, and make timely decisions that give you more peace of mind. This month we explore people's emotions in the workplace.

Imagine the following scenario in your organization. During a long council meeting, two of seven board members are prolonging a discussion on a local traffic issue. Both hope to be reelected this spring and have taken a rigid stance against those whom they think oppose them on the board. The mayor sees one of his favorite projects swirling down the drain. During a break, he stops to speak with you. He appears distressed.

Mayor: This next agenda item looks like it will be as tough as we thought.

Manager: Could you believe the outfit on that guy who wanted to have a place in the park to fly model airplanes? Sheesh, did his mom set out those clothes for him or what?

Mayor: Huh? Oh yeah, that was weird. Amazing the characters we get in these meetings, isn't it? (Half-heartedly) Well, time to have some coffee. ...

As you might be able to see in this month's dialogue, negative emotions get in the way. What is going on? Managers often feel incompetent as they try to deal with the emotional side of their working lives. An employee sharing a weakness can elicit in the manager raw feelings of exposure and even of contempt. This then can spoil a normal human interchange. A manager can quit trying. Personal support is avoided and lost. Emotions are complex and frustrating. As a psychiatrist trained in understanding emotions, I still find them confusing at times.

Charles Darwin noted more than a hundred years ago the importance of emotions. (1) The core emotions of all human beings have been there all along for those who bother to look. Darwin highlighted how emotions:

* Are part of our biology and are essential for motivation for all behavior. …

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