Welcome to the “Feelings Economy”.
You’ve been living in it for some time now: a world where our work and home lives are driven by feelings, not intellect.
What makes this so? According to brain science, it is the emotional side of the brain—not the rational, logical one—that tells us what is true. In other words, people feel before they think. But the emotional brain not only tells us what is true—it tells us what to do. People make decisions for emotional reasons, then justify them with rational reasons.
Unfortunately, business leaders often target the rational brain with their engagement efforts —thereby sabotaging their ability to energize their workforce.
In a previous article, I shared how executives can apply brain science principles to help employees overcome “brain freeze.”
Continuing on the thawing theme, today I’d like to talk about how leaders can “unfreeze hearts” and reinvigorate disenfranchised, depleted employees—by appealing to their emotions.
Differentiating emotional versus rational engagement
In their efforts to engage employees, business leaders traditionally focus on rational engagement—that is, appealing to the mind.
For example, consider how often organizations hold elaborate awards and recognition ceremonies to thank employees:
- the leaders’ rational brains tell them the initiative is effective because the speech is well-written and their intentions are good; however,
- the employees’ emotional brains may tell them that the recognition is not valid—simply because they do not feel it.
Why the difference between what is intended and what is felt?
Science shows that we have mirror neurons in our brains which recognize when care, support and respect are present in the person with whom we interact. Those same mirror neurons also recognize when care is being declared but disdain, contempt and boredom are being telegraphed.
In other words, your employees have the ability to sense whether you and your executive colleagues are being authentic or not.
So it doesn’t matter what you say or do to inspire, support or recognize your employees—if they don’t literally feel it, nothing can make it true for them. Even worse, you may be producing the exact opposite of what you intended—with employees left feeling misunderstood, offended, and even betrayed.
The research is clear
Historically, organizations prize reason over emotion. Yet research continues to show us that it may be time to change that mindset.
Consider the following:
- According to a study of 50,000 employees worldwide by the Corporate Leadership Council (CLC), emotional engagement releases a significant four times the discretionary effort over rational engagement.
- A Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) study has found one sole factor that significantly differentiates top-quartile managers from bottom-quartile managers: higher scores of warmth and affection for others. Granted, these managers were not without their rational sides—but their ability to think and have power and influence over others did not explain why these very people were the higher performers.
What does this mean? Leaders who want to energize their employees and create a great employee experience must be able to target emotions, show warmth, connect, and put words to their feelings.
This way of being can help leaders close the gap between what they intend, and what employees feel.
What can be done?
Now, I’m not saying that an awards ceremony will go completely unappreciated. However, the trick is in understanding exactly how to appeal to your employees’ emotional brains. And that means taking time to understand what matters most to them—through meaningful, face-to-face conversation.
If you needed definitive scientific proof that conversation works, look at this:
- Conversation releases high-performance hormones. It boosts the brain’s processing power by forming a feel-good energy cocktail of connection, calm, concentration, creativity and curiosity.
- Conversation addresses negative beliefs. Brain science shows that it is not our capability but our belief in our capability that impacts how effective we are. Leaders who engage in meaningful conversation with employees can identify and address negative beliefs, and create a much greater sense of agency in their people.
- Conversation provides context. Scores from engagement surveys rarely provide the “backstory” that leaders need to effect positive change. Engaging in conversation that takes individual needs into account (and honours how the brain operates) is more effective than jumping to action with broad-brush, one-size-only action plans.
- Conversation creates partnering relationships. Conversation also promotes trust and deepens the leader-employee relationship. This helps lead to relationships where leaders and employees can co-create powerful solutions that both parties are willing to adopt and implement.
Implement energy checks
Appealing to employees on an emotional basis (that is, through their hearts) doesn’t have to take up a lot of time. In fact, I’ve personally found that simply asking employees what is energizing them at the moment—and what is depleting their energy—is an effective way to do so (I and my team at Juice Inc. call these short, frequent conversations “Energy Checks”).
But I get it—you may feel you and your management team don’t have time to talk to employees on a regular basis.
Then again, consider how concerns that are unaddressed tend to fester and simmer. Over time, they turn into “crucial,” “fierce” or “difficult” conversations—consuming multiples of energy, time and mind-space from everyone in the organization.
Leaders save themselves a lot of headaches when they move beyond engagement as we know it today, and honour how the brain works. And done systematically, conversation can catch issues before they become calamity-based, saving time in the process.
Closer to the heart
In the Feelings Economy, our feelings are the first and last things we remember about any experience. Rational thinking still exists, obviously, but it’s simply sandwiched in-between those emotions.
By shifting to a culture that nurtures human energy through emotional engagement, leaders can make a monumental difference in the lives and abilities of their employees.
Imagine employees who reflect back years later and say, “Working with that leader – those were the best years of my life.” That might just be the biggest reason for leaders to consider switching from rational to emotional engagement—and building a culture with conversation as its ultimate backbone.