Emotions – can we really ‘manage’ them?

Emotional intelligence: controlling our emotions and reactions is something that Phil Willcox isn’t sure is the right approach

One of the first publications that brought the idea of Emotion into the workplace was the book by Daniel Goleman titled ‘Emotional Intelligence’ (or EQ, Emotional Quotient).  One of the core tenets of that book was the idea that there are different dimensions or aspects to EQ.  This is sometimes depicted as quadrants or slices in a pie and constant features are:



Social awareness (sometimes called awareness of others)

Relationship management (sometimes called Social Skill)


In particular I am interested in the idea of ‘management’ whether that be of emotion(s) in self or others.  It is fair to say I do have a slight fascination with language and that the word ‘management’ has been chosen, or is used most often, intrigues me.

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Well let’s start with the word itself, I looked up the synonyms of management because I wanted to know what is interchanged or associated with that word.  Here is what I found:

  • Executive
  • Upstairs
  • Directors
  • Executive suite
  • Administration
  • Brass
  • Mainframe
  • Micro
  • Board
  • Front office
  • Bosses
  • Management
  • Authority
  • Directorate
  • Executives
  • Person upstairs
  • Head
  • Employers
  • Execs
  • Top Brass

There is a definite hierarchical theme with the inclusion of ‘upstairs, bosses, authority’. I also quite like that the word ‘head’ is there almost in a direct contrast to what some may associate with emotion, ‘heart’.  So, the implication therefore, by saying ‘self-management’, we are suggesting that emotions are something that we need to have authority or control over. Is that right?  What about ‘relationship management’? Do you want to work in a way where someone is ‘managing’ the relationship you have with them?

Emotions have evolved as a way of alerting us to something that matters to our welfare or the welfare of those people or things we care about. That may physical welfare and it can also be about psychological welfare too. If we think we are being physically threatened we can experience fear just as if we think our competence or credibility are at threat. We can be scared.  

The right wording?
If our emotions are there to protect and/or enrich our lives, is it right or appropriate that the way we describe our relationship with them is one of ‘management’?

I’d like to suggest an alternative as I think Emotion is something that we ‘work with’ as opposed manage. As humans we have a large prefrontal cortex which allows us to think, process and come up with ideas. Other parts of the brain such as the amygdala and/or hypothalamus play a large role in emotion. One part of the brain does not ‘manage’ the other. They work together to make it so that we can function as people. If anything, emotion can impair or override cognitive function.

There is a risk that I am painting a picture where I say all emotions should be expressed without any regulation and the reality is different.

There are times when emotion saves our lives and others when emotion gets us into trouble. It is not about ‘controlling’ it is about understanding, noticing, working with emotion so that we can make more informed choices about the way we express how we feel.  

Importance of emotions
‘Working with’ emotion I think gives more recognition to the weight and importance to both aspects of thinking and feeling.  It implies a relationship that is a dynamic and powerful one and that to master it takes effort, energy and well…. Work.  

Pioneering emotion researcher Paul Ekman talks about how emotions can be expressed in two ways:

Constructive – that build relationships, understanding and collaboration
Destructive – that breaks down relationships, limits understand and stops collaboration

If we want to have a more constructive expression of emotion with ourselves and/or others, we need to work with them, not manage them.


About the author

Phil Willcox has made a promise; to make work better by placing emotion at the heart of work, fusing academic achievements with 20 years of practitioner experience. Contact @philwillcox and www.emotionatwork.co.uk

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