The brain is a fascinating thing. Our ability to react in an instant to a threat situation, move out of the way of moving car or catch something falling over. But if you’ve been faced with a tricky situation at work, you’ve likely asked yourself after… “what was I thinking doing/saying that?

When you learn to become aware of your emotions at work, a lot can change in how you react and engage. So we’re going to dive a little into the neuroscience of emotions and what’s going on with our brains at work.

A mantra we live by at Genos International Europe:

The way you ‘show up’ determines the way people feel…
The way they feel, determines the extent to which they can engage with you…
That impacts pretty much everything about the outcome of that relationship.


Neuroscience, the study of the biological mechanisms of the brain, has shown that whenever an event around us occurs (such as the way someone is talking to us in a meeting), the first thing that happens is our so-called Emotional Brain, which involves a little almond-shaped organ called the amygdala. It tags every event you experience as a reward or a threat; a friend or foe.

The job of the emotional brain goes way back to the days of our ancestors – to survival mode.

It’s purpose is to make very quick, unconscious determinations about whether something or someone is safe or not. This helps us determine every emotion we experience as good or bad.

Neuroscience has also shown us that positive emotions tend to enhance the functioning of our prefrontal cortex having, what social psychologist Barbara Fredrickson termed, a “broaden and build” effect. Positive emotions help us think more openly, creatively and laterally at work and home. With positive emotions we tend to be more open to new ideas. We also tend to think more deeply about issues and see more options.  Positive emotions also increase dopamine levels, which are important for interest in thinking and learning. When you experience positive feedback at work, a good relationship with a manager who puts trust in you, supports you etc. You are hard-wired to move towards that and lean into the things that give you positive emotional experiences. You engage more.

Negative emotions limit the functioning of our prefrontal cortex, narrowing our thinking and limiting our interpretations of events. Negative emotions can diminish our cognitive resources. We can often become biased in our views, lose our capacity to objectively evaluate situations and conceptualise our best responses to them. You may have experienced this during a verbal conflict with someone where you felt threatened and thought about all of the ‘smartest’ things to say – once you walked away from it. If someone tells you “Oh I didn’t like your presentation!” Boom, you’re triggered in the emotional brain, and it’s decided it’s a threat situation. Here you’re hard-wired to close off from these people or situations. You’re in survival mode.

Every emotion we experience gets a label through our emotional brain first, before meeting the Thinking Brain. The thinking brain hears the situation, evaluates and identifies it further.

Our brain is programmed to help us survive. Everything you do in life, is based on your brains determination to minimise threats and maximise rewards – with every single interaction and reaction you have.

While the effects of emotions are obvious when we’re consciously experiencing them, (e.g. we do our best thinking when we feel relaxed and commonly do things we later regret when angry), emotions are constantly and powerfully affecting our decisions, behaviour and performance unconsciously as well. We are, in fact, hard-wired to evaluate the world and make unconscious decisions about events and the people in them, based upon what feels safe, likeable, valuable, comfortable and meaningful.

This process is very important, particularly from a survival point of view. It’s the reason the axiom ‘it’s better to be safe than sorry’ came into being.

However, in the modern workplace, it can also cause us to think and behave in ways that are counterproductive to our performance and relationships. Consider how differently you think, behave and interact with others at work when you feel stressed, overly stressed or worried, in comparison to when you feel relaxed and happy. How do you engage with colleagues that you experience more positive emotions vs. those negative ones?

Effects of Negative Emotions:

  • Narrow our thinking
  • Limit our interpretation of events
  • Reduce linear conscious processing
  • Cause reactionary behaviour
  • Shy away from opportunities
  • More easily triggered
  • Reduces performance

Effects of Positive Emotions

  • More rational creative problem solving
  • More open to new ideas
  • More willing to try difficult things
  • Causes engagement behaviour
  • Takes more risks
  • Causes us to think more deeply
  • Increased dopamine levels – important for interest and learning.

Think about the last 24 hours. How emotionally aware would you say you’ve been? What was the ratio of positive to negative emotions? What do you think is the ratio of positive to negative for the majority of your colleagues?

Emotions do belong in the workplace but we need to help our teams understand them.

If you choose to show up in a way that makes people feel you’re trustworthy and reliable, etc. People will respond by engaging, opening and connecting with you.

When you work to develop an emotionally intelligent culture, you can better support collaborative, engaged and happier teams. Emotional Intelligence involves a set of skills that help us perceive, understand, express, reason with and manage emotions, both within ourselves and others. We can apply these skills to become more conscious of our own and others’ feelings. This, in turn, helps us minimise the unproductive influence emotions can have in the workplace to maximise productive results.

Want to learn more about getting started developing emotional intelligence in your team or with your organisation? Learn more about our EI development programs.  If you’re a coach, consultant, trainer or internal L&D/HR Professional, find out more about becoming a Genos Certified Emotional Intelligence Practitioner.

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