Powerful Waves of Emotion in Vermont

Irene’s Contribution to Management Theory

Last week Hurricane Irene clobbered Vermont. Though she was officially a tropical storm by the time she made her way up the coast and into western New England, Irene dumped enough wind and water on the Green Mountains to turn a dozen towns into islands, wash homes and base lodges off their foundations, flood businesses and fields, destroy roads, brutalize every aspect of the state’s infrastructure, kill innumerable farm animals and a carry three Vermonters to their deaths.

It is profoundly disturbing to see the damage that nature can do. It is also profoundly inspiring to see the good that people can do.

I have been struck, not only by the magnitude of the damage to all aspects of the state, but by the quick thinking and calm action that the devastation provoked in Vermonters. The power of the emotions associated with having to spring into action to help those around you – including yourself – is something that I think every businessperson who is trying to motivate action in others needs to remember.

No, this is not some Machiavellian perversion intended to manipulate tragic situations for the benefit of the economy (for that we’ll look to Congress), nor is it a business school primer on how to control outcomes by injecting fear of loss, i.e., the zero sum idea. This is a sincere suggestion with a compassionate intent: notice the beneficial power that strong emotions have to accomplish the tasks at hand.

Emotions deserve to be respected

Business leaders have been instructed to create mission statements that will motivate their employees. They dutifully carry out that task and then wonder why their workforce is not spurred to action by these overly-crafted statements. It’s because we have sanitized the human experience of emotion out of the workplace. Emotions are considered “inappropriate” in a work environment. They are labeled irrational, unpredictable and, therefore, irrelevant to a logical and data-driven framework. But are they inappropriate when an employee believes in a company’s mission and is happy to help make it a reality? Are we dismissive of emotions when an employee shows up to work with a spring in her step because she is exited about an important project? Do we judge someone because he shows pride in the quality of his work? Geez, I hope not.

While we are generally more comfortable with emotions like happiness and less comfortable with sadness or fear, business leaders can benefit from seeing that all emotions, when acknowledged and respected, can be a way for people to feel more connected to their work.

I’m pretty sure that the Red Cross or food bank workers in Vermont are not telling people not to grieve the fact that their towns are in upheaval. I’m also pretty sure that they are not telling volunteers not to feel satisfied for helping to rebuild their communities and help their neighbors. Both emotions are important. They are helpful. They inform the situation, not impede it.

My question is this: where are you using the beneficial power of emotions at work, and where are you hiding from them because they seem a little scary?

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