Once again - with feeling!

Are emotions our secret treasure chest for Reinvention?

The world of work is changing and particularly the social landscape as we now work far less together, at least in-person. I published a recent article on the implications of this for learning in the lead-up to our discussion next week with the Shannon Chamber on reinvention. This week, I focus on how socio-emotional aspects impact work including how we adapt to and navigate change. The question is - does less time spent in-person numb us and will this dumb us down too?

A quick response to the unexpected

‘Affect’ is how clinical psychologists refer to emotions and feelings and these have some surprising functions at work. For one thing, mood influences risk perception and judgement. In particular, the emotion of fear arouses us to make rapid decisions under pressure triggering goal-directed behaviour. However, the same feelings work differently depending on the situation and hence need careful regulation. For instance, a cup of coffee tends to amplify present emotion. You are best to avoid if and when nervously anticipating a meeting that requires slow, considered evaluation as may jump to conclusions prematurely.

‘Affect’ is tricky however as there is ample evidence to suggest that some negative emotions produce more careful deliberation than positive ones e.g. to avoid future regret. The key factor is whether the feelings we have either broaden or reduce how well we communicate. More person-to-person contact helps us access a full range of human emotion so it’s interesting to consider if we are losing out on full-spectrum-feeling to support the wide range of thinking tasks we face.

The value of a ‘slow hunch’

While innovation is often associated with breakthroughs, the empirical evidence is it typically takes a long time from incubation to fruition. However, if we do want a better chance of lightbulb insights, then we are certainly better off in a good mood. Research shows that positivity is an important driver for intuition. When we are feeling positive, we rely more on it to direct our actions. We experience that feeling of a hunch when we know what the right response is, although the underlying reasons are subconscious.

Therefore, if we want to access all important ‘tacit knowledge’ (gained from personal experience) to solve problems etc., a positive vibe on our team is key. This also suggests that where work performance relies heavily on the implicit knowledge of more experienced staff, this will suffer most away from their usual social context. Work requiring creativity depends on emotional signals, so we need to work hard to help teams get their mojo back.

The fact is that handling uncertainty (inherent in all complexity) relies on a whole array of emotions to support tasks as varied as speculation, fact-checking and brainstorming. Slow hunches evolve iteratively through conversations with like-minded people coming from other angles without the pressure to produce. Before Zoom fatigue creeps in we need to figure out how we can create spaces for this flexible interaction outside of the daily grind.

Why being right can be irrelevant

If we need evidence of the power of emotions, we see it most when the rational loses out to the irrational. For example, how many good technical ideas get dismissed or overlooked because the person communicating them lacks certain social credentials or grace? Identity bonds us tightly but sometimes also blind us. Our sense of belonging e.g. to a certain discipline can make us feel threatened when someone outside our inner circle makes a suggestion, even a valid one. Macro instability heightens a tendency to “other”, so we need to take care this doesn’t blur clear-sightedness.

When we communicate good ideas in a virtual setting, it requires greater social sensitivity than usual. Being right is less relevant if we don’t attract co-operation as it has less or even no impact. It is much easier in open plan offices to judge the best timing for our inputs, teasing out when is opportune.

The cost of free expression

If necessity is the mother of invention, social intelligence is most definitely a necessity for reinvention. We now need to compensate for the loss not just of a richly social work context but also a more nuanced emotional one. This requires raising our internal and external self-awareness to recover team performance levels of old. It is easier to be forthright (necessary to clarify purpose) and spontaneous (essential for creativity) in real-time interaction. We will need just the right combination of social upgrades and technology ‘pick-and-mix’ to help us keep ideas flowing in our more digitalised world.

If you are interested in more ideas on this topic, I will be contributing to a panel discussion with the Shannon Chamber this Thursday November 26th. Book in here

Also check out the Blog for other suggestions on how we can make uncertainty safe for our businesses and teams.