Can Emotions Change the Way We Change?

CHANGE MATTERSHOW MANY TIMES have you heard this statement: “This isn’t personal, this is just business.” Or “We need to take the emotions out of it, this is about the business only.”

Those statements make me cringe. Mostly because they negate something that can actually help a change be successful – emotion or affect. In fact, I have often heard and seen in print the statement “There is no motion without emotion.” Whether it be a case study of psychology or a paper on our buying habits, this concept is alive and well.

Positive Psychology talks about this concept specifically as it relates to change. I first heard it in this context from the well-known author and former Harvard Professor Tal Ben-Shachar. But he isn’t the only one. The concept has a universal truth about it and one we can harness as we implement changes in the workplace.

Emotions in the Workplace

Typically, when we think about emotions in the workplace, we think of them as being negative. We think that ‘real professionals’ don’t bring their emotions to work, and they definitely never reveal their emotions in the boardroom – they’re seen as a sign of weakness.

Except that all of us have emotions, and it’s not all that easy (or even possible) to leave them at the front door of the office. We may experience anger, frustration or fear as a result of something that happens at work; we may also experience more positive emotions like joy, satisfaction or excitement.

All of these emotions are giving us important clues about our situation and ourselves and if we pay attention to them, rather than doing our best to suppress them in the name of ‘professionalism’; we might succeed in using them to our advantage.

When an organization is going through change, it’s often the negative aspects of emotions that are most talked about: Those who oppose the change, those who challenge the change, and those who resist the change. But even these negative reactions to change provide important information to the organization.

We don’t always focus on the positive emotions associated with a change, but I think it’s important to pay just as much attention to them as we do to the negative emotions.

Did you know that 80% of individuals who experience some kind of trauma actually experience post-traumatic growth, not post-traumatic stress? That’s a good endorsement of our inner strength and resilience. However, we most often hear about the 20%. Now, I’m not minimizing the 20% who suffer from PTSD – their experience is real and difficult. But it’s interesting that we don’t focus on the majority who experience something more positive – and it leaves many of us with the notion that there is only one way to respond to trauma (PTSD) when in fact many of us respond much more positively.

When we examine PTSD and PTG (post-traumatic growth), we see that it’s often a single event that leads to either one. We know from the concepts of neuroplasticity that a single experience creates a new neural pathway in the brain. When that channel is seen as negative, we end up with PTSD; when it’s seen as positive, we end up with PTG.

We know that a single negative experience in our work life can set up a negative pathway that lasts. We know that all it may take is one manager, early in your career, telling you that you’ll “never rise to a senior leadership position” to change your career aspirations forever. It may also cause you to leave that manager and pursue your career aspirations elsewhere. Either action is fueled by emotion.

Consider that a single positive experience in our work life can have a similar outcome. Can it create a channel that will permanently increase our well-being and a positive response to challenges? The answer is yes. Sure, it depends on the experience – but it also depends on what we do with it. A negative experience can be turned positive, and a positive one can move use further.

Reinforcing positive experiences

When something bad happens at work – someone yells at you, you make a mess of a presentation in front of the whole team, etc. – we tend to replay it our heads over and over again, which of course reinforces the negative pathways the experience created. But when was the last time you replayed a positive experience over and over?

Many of us are taught to downplay our successes (“Don’t get cocky!” or “No one likes someone who’s full of themselves!”), so we tend to move on from positive experiences faster than we do from negative ones. But there’s nothing to stop you from replaying a positive experience to yourself. Journaling is a fantastic way to do this: By taking the time to describe the experience to yourself and write it down, you’re reinforcing the positive neural pathways that were created, and making it part of your personal narrative, which will enhance the results.

Another way to fortify positive experiences is simply to take the time to do so. In 2006, scientists demonstrated that rats who were given time to rest and ‘hang out’ ended up learning a maze faster than rats who were simply forced to repeat the (unsuccessful) attempts over and over again. As humans, giving ourselves sufficient downtime is critical both to the creative process and to allowing us to fortify our positive neural pathways.

Affect and change management

How does all of this relate to change management? Well, we can deny the existence of emotions in the workplace all we want, but the truth is that when change happens, it always generates emotions in the individuals required to carry out and live with that change. If we can acknowledge the negative emotions, we can do a better job of managing their consequences. More importantly, if we can harness the positive emotions, we can use them as powerful tools to create real and lasting change that delivers the results we want.

There is no motion without emotion, so let’s use those emotions – whatever they are – to move organizations forward through change.


Beth Banks Cohn
Beth Banks Cohn
BETH is dedicated to helping individuals and companies implement business changes that actually work. Beth believes in the ripple effect – that change handled well benefits everyone in an organization, over and over again. As a recognized expert in change as well as corporate culture, Beth consults domestically and internationally with a wide range of disciplines and businesses. Beth is the author of two books: ChangeSmart™: Implementing Change Without Lowering your Bottom Line and Taking the Leap: Managing Your Career in Turbulent Times…and Beyond (with Roz Usheroff).

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  1. Beautiful assertion and wonderful article Beth! Thank you dearly for illustrating the power of emotion… more so, how we can take advantage of positive emotions (but not ignoring negative ones in the meantime). “There is no motion without emotion, so let’s use those emotions – whatever they are – to move organizations forward through change” (Banks Cohn, 2017) really drives this home! 🙂

    • Thanks so much Jennifer for your comments. I see this at work every day in the companies I serve. I’m curious, how do you see it play out?