Personal Mastery: Working With Our Emotions
As a society, we aren’t good at dealing with emotion in a business context. We tend to view the office as a place to remain calm and rational, and to suppress or exclude our feelings there.
But if we don’t at least acknowledge our emotions then we exclude a part of ourselves. This means we miss the opportunity to tap into a great source of drive and motivation.
Part of Your Body and Brain
When we work, we’re using the complex and interconnected system of our bodies and brains. Emotions aren’t some abstract thing detached from physical reality; they’re an important part of how we function as biological beings.
Some examples of the neuroscience behind emotions can help us to understand why they’re so important in the workplace.
The sense of satisfaction we feel at completing a task is caused by a release of dopamine. Do well, and your brain rewards you with that chemical kick.
On the other side, clinical depression is connected to a shortage of dopamine as well as two other neurotransmitters, serotonin and norepinephrine. Not dealing with negative emotions can do long term damage to the brain, all but killing its supply of these vital chemicals. In its milder forms this can undercut someone’s motivation. In more extreme forms it can make it impossible for them to work.
Trying to set aside emotions clearly won’t help – they are too deeply connected to the chemical workings of our motivations. So what can we do instead?
Mastering Yourself, Not Just Your Emotions
In their 1994 book The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, a group of writers led by Peter Senge sought to address this important issue. In doing so, they took a new approach to the old idea of mastering your emotions.
When we talk about mastering our emotions we often mean controlling them and keeping them in check. But for Senge et al mastery had a different meaning. We should acknowledge, explore and understand our emotions. We should take quiet time to see how we are feeling, not rush on by and leave them to ambush as later. When addressing a situation, we should be considering not just our thoughts on it, but our feelings.
Personal mastery then becomes not about controlling your feelings, but working with them. It stops being about fighting against your own biochemistry. Instead you recognize the signals your body’s sending out and learning to make use of them. If you recognize that an idea makes you uncomfortable, but you can’t see a rational reason why, then your emotions have probably spotted something you missed. Explore the feeling, delve deeper, and you may find a problem and its solution that you would otherwise have missed.
Senge at al’s conception of personal mastery also gets into the deep waters of motivation. Many attempts to motivate employees rely on money, recognition or fear of failure. This vision of personal mastery is about focusing on work as rewarding in itself.
It’s an approach that makes total sense once we consider the biochemistry behind rewards. The dopamine rush we get from successfully completing a task becomes weaker each time, unless the reward becomes greater. Employees made satisfied by external rewards will have to be given more money and praise each time to keep them engaged. Those motivated by the satisfaction of the work will want more challenging tasks and greater achievements. The former takes resources out of the business, while the latter brings it closer to achieving its goals.
Twenty years on, The Fifth Discipline Handbook still contains valuable lessons. When combined with our growing understanding of neuroscience, it can and should transform the way we approach emotions, letting us use them in the workplace rather than repressing them.