Leah Weiss, Ph.D.

The Whole-Hearted Path

The Wisdom of Emotions At Work

Why emotions at work matter.

Posted Mar 14, 2018

Leah Weiss, Author
Source: Leah Weiss, Author

Excerpted from HOW WE WORK. Copyright © 2018 by Leah Weiss. Reprinted with permission from Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Emotions and Decision Making

Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist and professor of leadership at NYU’s Stern School of Business, where his research is focused on morality, emotions, and decision making. Haidt’s interest is in the context of moral decision making and the ways in which emotions influence ethical decisions. He says that our internalized versions of cultural norms, what he has coined as “social intuitionist” factors, can prompt us to make automatic, knee-jerk responses to moral questions. He describes such responses as “gut reactions of the mind.”

As humans, we use what Haidt calls “moral intuition” and then tend to justify these gut reactions with logical arguments after the fact. For example, we have a felt sense that a coworker’s joke was out of bounds but we use a rationalization to explain this feeling. 

Haidt’s approach is not dissimilar to the “thin slicing” phenomenon that Malcolm Gladwell made popular in his bestselling book Blink, drawing on researchers such as Kenney, Malloy, and Thorndike. The upshot is that we believe we make decisions as rational individuals, but in fact, we make snap judgments, based on emotions that are internalized social and cultural norms. And the whole process is fast and largely unconscious. Much of our behavior is driven by our emotions or our reactions to our emotions, even if it doesn’t feel that way. As researchers such as Haidt have shown, our particular idiosyncrasies and histories inform our responses to our environment. Each of us sees the world in his or her own way and brings a specific belief system and underlying assumptions to any given situation.

As a result, we often jump to conclusions and act based on those assumptions, which are not necessarily “objectively” correct. (We assume others view the world in the same way we do, too, but of course, that is also not the case.) This idea of interpreting the world around us according to our own experience is sometimes referred to as the “ladder of inference.” The Ladder of Inference The ladder of inference is a process by which we jump from observation of data in the environment to interpretation of that data. Knowing this ladder exists can help us observe our own ladder-jumping reactions.

Mindfulness lets us see how we are climbing this ladder of inference, in terms of the stories we tell ourselves and the emotions we experience. By being aware of each of these steps of taking in information from our environment—so-and-so says such-and-such, and we interpret him to be acting in a vindictive way toward us—we separate out what we observed from the inferences/stories we tell ourselves. And knowing what is driving our assumptions, conclusions, emotions, and actions is an important part of our being mindful. When we are able to see ourselves in action, to have awareness of the meta-moment, we can change our response before it’s too late.

When we pause to listen to the scripts in our heads, we can question whether those scripts are true. When we learn to identify our emotions, we can label which ones are truly wise and which might be a misleading by-product of the second arrow. Getting curious about where our ideas and feelings come from is the first step. It’s important to keep in mind that while our emotions happen in response to situations, situations don’t create our emotional responses. It is the way we interpret or appraise a situation that creates our emotional response to it.

This is where experience and judgment come into play. Focus is a useful tool when it comes to regulating our emotional responses. When we have the ability to shift our focus, we can then place our attention on observable data. Once we recognize that we are climbing the ladder of inference, we can descend back to less subjective information. For example, when a coworker says something that upsets us, we can ask a question that will help us parse what that person’s motivation was. It could be as simple as asking him what he meant by the remark, or observing that he seems upset and trying to draw out further information from him.

Accomplish This: Identify the Ladder of Inference Paying attention and recognizing when we are climbing the ladder of inference can offer us the opportunity to shift our attention to objective data, rather than react to subjective feelings. Bring to mind a recent situation at work that caused you to experience difficult emotions and then try the following: 

Write down how the situation made you feel. What were your strongest emotions? Fear? Anxiety? Panic?

• Now take a moment to write or reflect on the facts of the situation. What actually happened?

• Next, take a step back. What would an objective observer say about the situation? Did what actually happened warrant the emotions you felt? Was the eventual outcome as terrible as you thought it was? Practice identifying what you are inferring through your emotional response it, like a child with his fingers in his ears saying, “I can’t hear you!” When we begin a mindfulness practice, we are able to see the damaging patterns, but we have yet to develop the strength to avoid being overwhelmed by them. Emotion regulation gives us strategies to recognize and influence our relationship with our emotions, including what type they are and how much/how long/and how they play out in our behavior. So how does this work in action, in a professional setting?

Here are a few effective strategies drawn from research and my own curriculum.

REFRAME/REAPPRAISE We all have habits of interpretation of our emotions that don’t serve us, but it’s possible to rework them. The more self-aware you are about your emotions, the stronger your ability to do this effectively, which builds on the foundation of the mindfulness you are practicing.

Recognizing that the way you interpret any given situation is subjective means you can reappraise it and react in a healthier way. For example, if you are angry at your boss because he didn’t give you the information you needed to do something successfully, you can be maladaptive, stomping around and complaining angrily, or you can be adaptive by knowing that it’s up to you to get the feedback you need. Schedule a meeting with your boss and approach him when you’re feeling rational.

ACCEPT Having clarity regarding your emotions is the key to accepting them. This requires the ability to recognize them, name them, and understand them. Some of the phrases used in psychology to teach acceptance of emotions are: “catch yourself reacting,” understand your “triggers,” and (in business/leadership contexts) “know your tuning.”

The next time you’re experiencing a difficult situation at work, think about the bigger picture of your life and ask yourself whether this difficulty might be a part of a larger pattern. Do you have a tendency to avoid conflict?

Do you start things and struggle to finish them? Do you place a lot of trust in people and feel disappointed when they don’t perform up to your standards? Do you have expectations for yourself that you don’t often meet? How do these patterns relate to your current situation and to the stories you’ve been paying attention to over the past week?

When you become disproportionately upset by a small comment or beyond what is called for in a given situation, what do you think was the trigger? What “tells” do you notice when triggered? When I was working with veterans at the Veterans Administration, I studied a system called ACT, or acceptance and commitment therapy.

This practical application of emotional regulation is completely consistent with mindfulness practice.

ACT focuses on three tasks:

1. Accept your reactions and be present.

2. Choose a valued direction.

3. Take action. 

The first step, acceptance, means not avoiding or suppressing our emotions. Next, choosing a valued direction gives us clarity on what matters to us and connects us with our purpose, allowing us to consider how it maps onto a particular situation.

We then can act with our feelings clarified and our goals in mind. ACT offers a five-step process for accepting emotions:

1. Let your feelings or thoughts happen without the impulse to act on them.

2. Observe your weaknesses but take note of your strengths.

3. Give yourself permission not to be good at everything.

4. Acknowledge the difficulty in your life without escaping from it or avoiding it.

5. Realize that you can be in control of how you react, think, and feel. ACT also uses a concept called defusion, which helps us realize that thoughts and feelings are not factual truths carved in stone but, rather, sensations and reactions that will pass. There is also a saying in AA that expresses this idea: “feelings aren’t facts.” I like this idea of defusion; it makes me think of a bomb metaphor: if we don’t recognize what we are feeling, then we are tick, tick, ticking away, ready to explode.