Source: HBR.com. Author: Art Markman, PhD.
One goal of developing emotional intelligence is to better understand the people around you. This can help you to interact with them more effectively and to understand what they want. It can also help you understand people’s motivations, which even they themselves might have trouble articulating.
Emotions can reveal information that people can’t directly tell you, because they arise from the operation of the motivational system. The brain circuits that drive our actions are not well connected to the parts of our brains that help us introspect and tell stories about our behavior. Consequently, people can struggle to give accurate answers about the factors that are leading them to act as they do.
Instead, the motivational system communicates with the rest of the brain through the feelings it generates. These feelings are interpreted by the brain, and that leads to the emotions people experience.
There are three core aspects of motivation that can be read from the emotions people display: success, commitment, and orientation. These are not the only things you can learn to read from emotions, but they are the most important aspects of motivation that you can assess from what other people are feeling.
Success refers to whether a person is currently moving toward goal satisfaction or has recently achieved a goal. Goal success creates positive feelings, and goal failure creates negative feelings. So when people display positive emotions like anticipation, happiness, or relief, they are signaling that they have had a recent success or are confident about their prospects for success. When they display negative emotions like fear, anxiety, sadness, or disappointment, they are revealing that they have had a goal failure, or they anticipate one.
It is valuable to bear this in mind because employees who experience negative emotions consistently are facing obstacles and goal failures. This opens up an opportunity to talk with them about whether there is anything that can be done in the workplace to smooth their path. In addition, it allows employees to express any difficulties in their personal lives that may be bleeding over into the workplace. When people feel that their workplace is supportive of their whole life, they are often more engaged with the organization.
There is also a tendency to focus on generating positive emotions in the workplace. However, the more satisfied people are with their current state, the less motivated they are to move forward and achieve new things. A little negative emotion reflects that people have goals that they have not yet achieved. Thus, it is important to balance the need for a pleasant workplace with the importance of helping colleagues to strive toward unfulfilled aims.
Commitment is the degree to which people are engaged with a goal that is important to them. You can read a person’s commitment from the strength of their reactions. When someone has a strong negative reaction to a proposal at work, for example, we often say that we have “touched a nerve” in them. What we have really done is place an obstacle in front of a strongly held goal. The strength of the reaction is hard for people to control because it is driven by the engagement of the motivational system.
When dealing with people in the workplace, strongly emotional reactions are a clear signal of a deep commitment to an issue. It can be quite difficult for people to separate their emotional reaction from the importance of the goal for them. Sometimes, that strength of emotional reaction is a benefit. The passion people show as they strive toward a goal can be contagious to others. However, in settings like negotiation in which each party may not get what they want, it can be valuable to bring in agents to negotiate on behalf of parties who have strongly vested interests in the outcome. Agents can work on the core issues without letting strong emotional reactions get in the way of a settlement.
Orientation is a bit more complicated than the other two aspects of motivation. The two motivational orientations are approach and avoidance, and they are supported by different subsystems of the motivational system. The approach system is engaged when people are trying to pursue potential positive outcomes. The avoidance system is engaged when people are trying pursue potential negative outcomes.
Tory Higgins and his colleagues have demonstrated that when the approach system is active, people experience positive emotions of happiness, joy, and fulfillment, and negative emotions of sadness, dejection, and disappointment. When the avoidance system is active, people experience negative emotions of fear, stress, and anxiety, and positive emotions of relief and calmness.
One reason why orientation is important is that it is valuable to help colleagues match their motivational state to the real problems facing them in the workplace. Many people find the workplace to be stressful. Stress and anxiety are signals of avoidance motivation. So if people are stressed, there is something significant in their environment they are trying to avoid. If the workplace would benefit from having people strive toward positive goals, then it is important to help people shift their focus away from the negative elements driving their fear and to focus them on the desirable outcomes that can trigger their anticipation and ultimate satisfaction with their work.
Finally, it is easy to get caught up in other people’s emotions. We are wired so that our goals are contagious. If we see someone else being passionate about an issue, we may get energized as well. It is important to observe the emotions of the people around you in order to better understand their motivations. It is also important to observe your own emotional reactions, because they are one of the most important pieces of information about your motivational state.
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