But How Do You Really Feel? Emotions at Work

“But how am I supposed to know what they want if they don’t tell me how they feel?”

This was the question I was asked during a coaching session with a supervisor the other day. She had received good marks on her feedback survey from her staff, but like most managers, there were a few areas that could use improvement. 

The difficult part was, there were no comments from any of her staff members, and the numbers alone could not tell the story of what she needed to do in order to improve.

The organizations we work with every day face this issue all the time. Businesses have become so good at measuring how they are doing based on numbers, graphs and scales, that we’ve forgotten one of the most important factors. 


Yes, I said feelings. And that might sound wishy-washy and not very business-like, but the fact remains that it’s not machines that keep businesses running these days, but people. And people are driven by emotions far more than we like to admit because we have this perception that feelings are messy, dangerous, inferior and even irrelevant to business.

However, studies show that we make decisions based on emotion and then back these up by logic. And this is especially true when it comes to business decisions. Why? Because generally there is so much more riding on the decisions we make at work than at other times. It is too difficult to keep emotions out of situations that may affect us greatly. But we’ll usually lie and say we didn’t let our feelings sway us. Sam Simon and Dan Hill, authors of Emotionomics: Leveraging Emotions for Business Success, call this an intellectual alibi. 

J.P. Morgan said, “A man makes a decision for two reasons – the good reason and the real reason.”

So while we might think that all that matters are the numbers on the page, the most important factor is the feelings that caused those numbers to appear.

And that’s where we run into the big issue. We’ve forgotten how to communicate how we feel to one another in a business setting. For so long we’ve pretended that we tuck our personal feelings away in a box when we get to work, and operate like a machine making logical choices all day, and then pick up our feelings on the way out the door at 5 o’clock. 

But we all secretly know that’s not the case. 

And our connected society hasn’t made this any easier. Cell phones, email and text messages have all made communicating how we really feel to one another even harder. Ninety-seven percent of communication is non-verbal. Thus, most of what we communicate to one another is derived from our body language and tone of voice. We understand what people are saying not by their words, but by their emotional responses.

However, much of the ways we now use to communicate at work have eliminated those telling signs. And due to this we’ve lost touch with what it means to actually hear what people are saying to us. 

Getting Back in Touch

So how do we get back to a place where we understand what people are feeling at work in order to make positive changes and improve performance?

The first step is to allow people their feelings. Everyone needs to know that it’s okay to share how they are feeling about things and how it affects them. The widespread acceptance of the fact that employees are human and that human beings have emotional responses is the first step to understanding why people behave the way they do and clearly knowing what they need from you.

Secondly, you need to open up the right channels to be able to hear what people are saying. More times than not, this means talking to people face-to-face. Undoubtedly email, instant messaging and phone calls are all invaluable, but if you really want to know what’s going on with a person, you must talk to them face-to-face. Only then will you be able to understand all of what they are saying.

For a lot of people this isn’t an easy thing to do, whether you’re the person listening or the one talking. In the beginning, it might be uncomfortable listening to what people are feeling. But with practice it becomes easier.

In order to make people comfortable talking about their emotions, it is also necessary to create an environment of trust. No one will tell you what they are really feeling unless they feel they can trust you not to use it against them. 

Finally, you need to learn how to listen differently. Some people are naturally attuned to what others are saying beyond their words. For other leaders, it takes time to read all the signs people are giving them. Someone might say they are just fine and things are going well, but if they can’t look you in the eyes or are constantly fidgeting with their pen, these are signs that everything might not be alright.

You must learn how to bridge the gap between what people say and what they are really feeling

I read a post about a leader who could always tell how his staff were feeling each day by the way they held their coffee cups during the morning meeting. The higher the cup was on their body, the more uneasy and nervous they felt. The coffee cup was their unconscious way of creating a barrier between them and others to make them feel safer. 

Thus, learning to understand people’s feelings is a two-fold operation. It means allowing people the ability to express their feelings and giving them the opportunities to do so, but also learning to read the signs they are telling you without always realizing it. 

If you are a manager, supervisor, boss, or team leader, and really want to know how to make positive changes and inspire more action in your people, you must accept and embrace the emotions they bring to the tablewith them every day and learn how to leverage these to make a great organization. Making stronger emotional connections with employees is vital to long-term success.