Leadership & Emotions

By Chris Chittenden

Organisational theorists have spoken about the climate of an organisation for a long time, however there has been very little talk of the impact of moods and emotions on an organisation.

Why are moods and emotions so important to an organisation?

Human beings are emotional animals. We felt emotions long before we discovered language and long ago they helped us survive in a dangerous world where our next encounter could have been our last. Fear, joy, anger, sadness and so on are aspects of human beings that we still see every day. They are an underlying aspect of everything that we do and every encounter that we have. We claim that your emotional state is a predisposition for the action that you can take. For instance, in a fit of rage, can you imagine showing kindness to someone else? This extends to all emotions, such that certain emotions enhance certain actions and preclude others.

So what is the difference between a mood and an emotion? Moods are best described as our underlying emotional state. We are always in a mood and also tend to have basic moods that orientate us in life. Emotions are the stronger feelings that we have as a response to something. They are built upon our underlying mood. This means that our emotional response will vary to a particular situation based upon our underlying mood. For example, if we drop a cup when we are in a good mood, we may just take it in our stride and move to repair the damage. The same event occurring while we are in an irritable mood could lead to an explosion of an inappropriate level of anger.

An interesting aspect of moods and emotions is that we observe them in others but, for many, not in ourselves. This can lead us to a blindness about our emotional state that has us act out of the mood or emotion we are in, rather than taking the opportunity to change it to allow for other actions.

Another aspect of moods and emotions is that they can be very contagious and this has a subtle but major implication for an organisation. People who work within an organisation tend to share the same underlying mood. This often comes across as a form of organisational climate. Something that we cannot put our finger on but that exists. Think back to when you have entered an organisation for the first time. How often did you get a real sense of what it is like to work for that organisation from the people that you met? Were they bright and happy to be at work or did you get the sense that they were there under sufferance?

Given that this mood would be a predisposition for the action that could occur within that organisation, it may well not be conducive to the actions that are needed. Despite all of this evidence that we are all subject to our moods and emotions and the impact they can have on an organisation, it seems that moods and emotions are one of the domains that the noted organisational consultant Chris Argyris calls the "undiscussable" within organisations.

Given that moods and emotions are so important to an organisation, they become a critical aspect of leadership. Blindness to a mood is not restricted to individuals and can also apply to an organisation. Good leaders need to be attuned to the mood within their organisation. Once they recognise the mood, they need to understand what is possible and not possible for the organisation within that emotional space. If they feel that the mood is not conducive to outcomes they seek to achieve, they then need to intervene and change the organisational mood. The question I hear you asking is how?

As we have already said, moods are contagious. The people who can influence most people within an organisation are its leaders because, just as children learn attitudes and behaviours from watching their parents or care givers, so we learn from our leaders. However, just as leaders would like the organisation to catch their mood, the reverse also applies. They can catch the mood of the organisation.

To avoid this, good leaders need a well thought out vision. However, in too many organisations that vision tends to only sit with the senior executives. The key to the vision is its clear definition of a future that is meaningful to all. It has to be a powerful declaration, that is heard, understood and acknowledged consistently by the whole organisation. In other words, the leader must speak the vision often and from a genuine and positive mood. They have to convey to everyone that “This is where I am going, I am declaring it to you and this is what I require of you to come there with me”.

As we believe the organisational leaders are the key to creating the organisational mood or climate, when assisting organisations deal with their mood, we focus on coaching the organisational leaders in how to observe and present themselves and their vision. Since in many cases, organisational leaders virtually neglect moods and emotions, including their own, very often the first step is to get them to recognise the moods and emotions of themselves and those around them. This can be a very difficult step to take as most people in business seem to believe that moods and emotions are something that we check at the door whenever we go to work.

Moods and emotions are a great untapped and profound area of learning for most organisations and organisational leaders. If you are looking for a competitive advantage, you need look no further than enhancing the mood of your organisation to allow the actions that need to occur to make your organisation successful.

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© 1998 Chris Chittenden