Thursday, October 2, 2008

Leading by Understanding the Emotional Future

Traffic lights are also called signals because they provide information that directs our future action. They “signal” us to stop, go, or in the case of yellow… hit the gas and race through the intersection. (Maybe I don’t have that last signal quite right.) Emotions are signals too. They contain information that communicates direction. Just as in traffic lights, we can only understand emotional signals if we detect the signal, judge its intensity (akin to how far you are from the light), and evaluate our options accurately. How well do you understand emotional signals?

Emotional intelligence (EI) is "the ability to carry out accurate reasoning about emotions and the ability to use the emotions and emotional knowledge to enhance thought.” (1) In their extensive review of EI research, Professor John Mayer and his colleagues reported that high EI scores predict better social relations, decision-making, negotiation results, and long-term leadership success. (1) There are four major emotional skills outlined by Professor Mayer:

I. Perceive the emotions

II. Use the emotions

III. Understand the emotional future

IV. Manage the emotions

Previous blogs discussed the first two skills. We will now focus on improving the third EI skill - understanding emotions so you can predict the future accurately. Leaders who are strong in this skill understand the basic causes of the emotions, have a rich emotional vocabulary, and employ what-if analysis to create the desired future.

To understand a thing is to know its cause. Research suggests that the cause of each of the five basic emotions is as follows:

Sad. We fall into sadness when we do not achieve a goal or we lose something that we care about. Sadness often leads us to mourning, thereby allowing us time to grabble with the loss.

Happy. Happiness bubbles up when we do or experience something that we value. It usually is related to achieving a meaningful goal.

Anger. Anger boils up when we feel we've been wronged or that an injustice has been committed. So anger does have a place, but it can also be quite destructive. When we feel anger, the key is to try to understand from whence it comes.

Fearful. Fear grabs us when something undesirable is happening or is about to. It is frequently accompanied by a feeling of uncertainty and a desire to escape. Anxiety is related to fear, but usually is a more persistent and generalized.

Surprise. Surprise springs out of the jack-in-the-box when events do not go according to plan. It catches our attention and, like a magic trick, encourages us to try to figure out what’s up.

Once you understand the causes of the basic emotions, it is necessary to expand your emotional vocabulary. This allows you to fine-tune your understanding of emotions, yours and those around you. For example, I could say that I was surprised when I received a new executive coaching contract yesterday. But that would not be accurate because I was actually amazed. My amazement stemmed having it signed and delivered within a week of submitting it. If you don't have a robust language, you are not able to express yourself fully. Each of the five basic emotions listed below has related emotional terms adapted from professors Caruso and Salovey: (2)


- pensive

- down

- gloomy

- sad

- grief-stricken


- serene

- pleased

- happy

- joyous

- ecstatic


- annoyed

- frustrated

- upset

- anger

- rage


- attentive

- wary

- worried

- fearful

- panicked


- content

- distracted

- surprised

- amazed

- shocked

Understanding the cause of emotions and expanding your emotional vocabulary are preludes to predicting the emotional future. It is very useful for leaders to understand not only where others are “coming from,” but where they're “going to.” Prediction in emotions is like predicting in any other business discipline; you employ what-if analysis to generate a plan of action.

The key ingredient to what-if analysis is recognizing the patterns that emotions follow. Then of course, you already know that if you had studied the list of five basic emotions and their related emotional terms. Please look again, this time search for patterns. Do you notice the progression of each emotion? By recognizing that emotions advance through predictable sequences, you are able to test certain assumptions about your plan to deal with that emotion. For example, if you are in a meeting and one of your direct reports seems annoyed with one of her colleagues (because he’s talking too much), you can predict that she will soon become frustrated, upset, and even angry if you do not deal with the situation. By detecting annoyance early, you can avoid this emotional escalator. Perhaps you therefore decide to ask others for their contributions, thereby limiting the talker’s domination.

I recommend that you refer to the emotion list throughout the day to expand your emotional vocabulary and experiment with what-if analysis. How surprised will you be as you become a better leader because you understand the emotional future?

Keep on stretching,


1. John Mayer and colleagues: Human Abilities: Emotional Intelligence, ‘Annual Review of Psychology,’ 2008, 59: 507 -- 536.

2. David Caruso and Peter Salovey: ‘The Emotionally Intelligent Manager: How To Develop and Use The Four Key Emotional Skills of Leadership,’ Josse-Bass, San Francisco, California, 2004 41 - 51.

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