We’re formal, logical thinkers, and our decisions should be the same, right? The evidence suggests otherwise. Rational thought is exhausting, and we avoid it. Most of the time we operate on what Kahnemann in Thinking Fast and Slow calls System 1 thinking, which is fast and intuitive. Getting us to use the slower, more overtly conscious and logical System 2 is problematic, and not always advised.

Donald Norman, in Emotional Design, documents that aesthetics and emotions matter to our design processes as well as our products. This is also true when we consider engagement with our organizations. It’s clear that enlisting the heart as well as the mind makes for a more powerful combination than either alone. What does that mean for our work? Organizations need to address our emotions as well as our brains. We can look at individual, interpersonal, and organizational elements.


The first and obvious role is to consider emotion in learning. Do we learn best when we’re unmotivated and anxious? Of course not. Yet we seldom consider these elements in our designs, except in superficial ways. Tarting up content dump and knowledge test with fancy graphics and gaming themes isn’t the same as digging into why this content is important. We can, and should, be shooting to create learning experiences that entice the learner in for their own interest and benefit.

That plays over into knowing when it’s okay to be resorting to the quick decision, and when we should be working on thoughtful consideration. We need to make sure that intuition is trustworthy when it’s used for what matters. Then we need to draw upon emotion as a moderator about when and how to use both systems. When we’re expert or the consequences are small, we can take the easy way. When it’s new (and ambiguous or uncertain), or it’s important, we should engage more deeply. In short, we need to deal with resistance to the second slower and effortful system when it arises.

This requires self-awareness and management of one’s emotions. We need, for instance, to see mistakes as learning opportunities—not situations that require anger, frustration, or denial. We need to recognize when our emotions are engaged, and ensure that they’re appropriate.

This has often come under the rubric of EQ or EI (emotional intelligence). However, that notion is controversial. Intelligence (as in IQ or intelligence quotient) implies a notion of a fixed and immutable capability, but here I mean something different. It is clear that we can and should be ensuring or developing our awareness and monitoring of our own emotions. We’re talking about skills—with assessment and development—not just measurement.


The notion of monitoring emotion also carries over into interpersonal interactions. Such engagements are fraught with the opportunity for emotions to interfere with effective interactions. Again, skills matter, and we don’t want to take them for granted. There is evidence that these skills can also be developed.

Reading others’ emotions and reacting appropriately is important. As Dawn Metcalfe says in The HardTalk Handbook, in communication we need to address emotions first. Then, when we’ve made the ‘space’ safe, we can communicate effectively. To do so, we need to understand our own and other’s emotions, and how to effectively address them.

There’s a risk here. Being able to read someone’s emotions and effectively address them could be seen as manipulating them. And I’m not advocating that! I argue we should meet real needs with real value and do what’s right, not what’s expedient.

Another important interpersonal area fraught with emotion is in coaching and mentoring. Here the power relationships are typically unequal, and as such are more fraught with potential to be problematic. Again, developing the skills is critical to ensure that such exchanges are productive.


Organizations impact, and are impacted, by our emotions. They play a role in our perception of the organization, and in our effectiveness in working with it. Do our organizations generate positive emotions? Yes, it’s culture, but it’s about the specifics.

Amy Edmondson, in Teaming, talks about the need for psychological safety. Here, individuals perceive that their contributions are not only desired, but solicited. If you contribute, it’s okay! This is coupled with accountability, of course, which adds its own layer of emotion.

A second element is about diversity. It can be an emotional issue, but the benefits of having variety in inputs is a cornerstone of innovation. And it has to be more than toleration, but instead real appreciation.

One other element would be the feeling of doing meaningful work. It’s clear that purpose, as we take from Dan Pink’s Drive, is an important emotional and mental component for individuals. Yet that component is again affected by organizational priorities. I’d add that his two other components, autonomy and mastery, similarly have emotional components.

Ultimately, we want to ensure that the cultural components are aligned to create an environment that makes learning not just an imperative, but desirable.

Take home

Emotions are part of our cognition. Science recognizes that our overall responses are a mixture of the cognitive and emotional. To optimize the outcomes, we need to ensure that we’re considering and addressing all the elements. To be smart, we need to be emotional as well as rational. So let’s be mindful of emotions, and make our decisions accordingly.