Negative emotions affect performance in the workplace | Mike Cook

Yesterday I was working by telephone with a young man who is a coaching client.  In my opinion he is a uniquely talented manager; he’s rare in that he has a keen sense of what it takes to develop a staff that can function well or better without him. Most of my clients these days are younger than forty and I am finding more of them have an inherent understanding of the importance of and skills for staff development. Still, I find this belief uncommon in many workplaces.

The conversation we were having involved realizations my client had over the previous two weeks that some of the behaviors he was trying to alter were based on a false or at least no longer valid premise. He characterized it as realizing he had been playing a joke on himself. This would be no small awakening for any of us.

Here’s a guy who has made the high potential list in his company (he probably would in most companies) and has been told there are some behaviors he exhibits that may hold him back. Sound familiar?  He’s come to realize that his actions in some cases are driven by a false fear that is now so old it has become thoroughly justified and cloaked in explanation (story). In another context we might say he was under the spell of a superstition.

The net of the work this client and I are doing together is not so much to get him to stop doing what he has been doing. Rather, we have gotten him to a place where he now sees he has a choice about how he behaves. Now we get to see what he is really committed to!

Do you appreciate how hard it is for a successful person to unwire a pattern that has led to success in the past? You do if you’ve ever tried it yourself.

Now put yourself in another position. Imagine you are average Joe or Jolene and you are not on anyone’s high potential list. You are not aspiring to anything special. You like your work and the standard of living it affords you. Most of the time you are able to get your work done in a satisfactory fashion but sometimes you have to work with that person or that department and then it is a different story. You often get “uncomfortable” when you have to interact with that person and you don’t “feel welcome” when you sit in on meetings with that department. In fact the emotions you experience in these situations are so powerful that even the thought of being in similar situations is enough to upset you. And around that person and that department your performance suffers. You don’t like it and your manager expresses frustration.

Fortunately you don’t need to be in the situations often. In fact, you go out of your way to not be available for them. Unfortunately for you, not being on a high potential list it is not likely you’ll have the benefit my young client has and you’ll continue to avoid these situations. Too bad, as your behavior will not go unnoticed and will likely keep you from advancing or maybe assuming more challenging work.

Chances are good that if the data I have from Target Training International holds up—and so it has for me for more than 15 years—the vast majority, somewhere between 65-70 percent, of any given workforce are is motivated by strong negative emotions (think FEAR). In fact, they are often paralyzed by the experience. Paralyzed as in not able to do what they know needs to be done. That is a lot of productivity that is at risk.

What are the warning signs to look out for?

As a manager, whether dealing with a direct report or someone you report to, when you hear phrases like:

“I am not comfortable with this!”

“This doesn’t feel right to me!”

“I don’t like the sounds of that!”…

You are dealing with fear disguised as reason. Further proof will come as you attempt to provide a reasonable response. It will make no difference. Until the person you are addressing is able to identify their reaction as fear-based you have no hope of proceeding successfully.

It would be great for everyone concerned if you could become sensitized to the need each of your reports—and even your manager—have for someone to recognize the signs of paralysis by negative emotions.

It is not cool to even have emotions in the workplace much less own up to the fact they guide your behavior.

Mike Cook lives in Anacortes. His columns appear on every other Tuesday. He publishes a semi-weekly blog at and also facilitates a monthly business book reading group at Village Books.

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