Emotions Are Data

How viewing emotions as data can make you a more effective leader, manager and human being

Photo Credit: Janneke Staaks

Emotions are data. We write these three words on the whiteboard during the group coaching sessions or manager trainings that my coaching partner Michael Terrell and I have run hundreds of times over the last several years. What started as a thought-provoking way to engage startup teams on the topic of emotion regulation has become one of our core philosophies as coaches. We’ve found that when we can convince our startup leader clients to start seeing emotions — their own and those of others — as data, it opens them up to radically new ways of understanding, managing and leading.

When you start to look at emotions as data, it changes not just how you think and feel about emotions in the first place, but also what you do with them, ultimately enabling you to identify and channel more productive responses.

The first way in which I’ve seen this framing make people more effective leaders is this:

When you accept the framing of emotions as data, you are freed up to engage with emotions (yours and others’) in ways you previously ignored or avoided.

When you treat emotions as data in a complex and dynamic system, you realize that emotions are variables that can change and evolve quickly, and thus are never indicative of character, ability or other more long-lasting states in people. This is a critical re-framing, because I’ve found that one of the biggest roadblocks that holds people back from expressing or sharing emotions with their startup teams is their fear that disclosing an emotional state will brand their character or affect their reputation in a more permanent way. (“I could never share I was feeling frustrated because then people might label me as ‘negative Nate’ or ‘the complainer.’) But once we start to view emotions for the dynamic variables they are, we can start to relax a bit and give ourselves room to explore how we feel without fear of judgment.

Emotions are data that inform our brains’ decision-making abilities. You need only look at the work of neuroscientist Antonio Damasio to see how brains that physically can no longer process emotion, but still retain logical reasoning abilities still cannot make basic everyday life decisions. We can claim we’re deciding based on objective models or pro-con lists, but our so-called debates and arguments are still held up by a rich foundation of emotion. And yet, so many startup leaders or managers try to run meetings where they “remove all emotion from the process.” Yes, emotions will skew decisions in ways we don’t want when they give rise to unconscious bias — but otherwise they play a highly functional and necessary role in our abilities to decide things on our own and in groups. When you start to see emotions as data, why would any savvy startup leader intentionally cut him or herself off from a potential gold mine of information?

Data itself is never wrong or biased — those issues only arise when we move to interpretation. Bias emerges in how we select or collect data and how we choose to make meaning of the data we find. It is the same with emotions. You’re never “wrong” when you sense you feel angry, but you can be wildly off in interpreting why you feel angry (e.g., false attribution or correlation bias) or in what meaning to make of the feeling (e.g., how you respond with action in the moment you feel angry.)

Now, my coaching clients are quick to point out that true quantitative data is legitimately comparable — a 1 is a 1 is a 1 regardless who is generating or processing that quantitative data. But how could you ever hope to compare self-reported experiences of joy or grief or envy and be confident that everyone is reporting the same underlying entity? Yes. That is true. But again, why would managers cut themselves off from even exploring the data just because people happen to have access to different data streams and thus come with wildly different perspectives? Far better to bring all perspectives to the table and figure out a complex problem together. This also speaks to the need to train your team to be more precise in identifying their emotional data and interpretations so that data quality and reporting improves as a group over time — which leads me to my second point about how grappling with emotional data will make you a more effective leader:

As you learn how to identify and express your emotions as data, you will cultivate more precision and range in how you identify and report your emotional data. And when you track that data more precisely over time, you can glean insights from the patterns that emerge.

Think back to the last few times you asked someone on your startup team (in the U.S.) how they were doing or how they were feeling. My bet is that you got one of two answers:

“Good/Fine”

or

“Busy/Tired”

These are the catch-all socially acceptable ways in the U.S. to express the entire range of positive and negative emotion. Are they remotely precise or accurate? Heck no.

This ritual call & response at work has a place, and I’m not advocating for you to stop someone in their tracks in the hallway by responding with much richer data like “elated” or “subdued” or “peeved.” The deviation from the ritual would probably mystify the other person in an entirely un-helpful way.

But often the first thing Michael and I do with our coaching clients is help them to expand their emotional vocabulary. Take a look at this feelings chart that we created for our t-group weekend retreats and use often in our coaching and training work as well.

Here we display a sampling of emotions in the English language organized into columns by “families” of related emotions. Along the y-axis you see different intensity levels within each “family” and along the X-axis you see a spectrum of emotion “families” ranging from the “positive” on the left to the “negative” on the right.

There are two things that are important to understand about this chart:

First, when we call them “positive” and “negative” emotions we are referring to the physical sensations of the emotions, not the relative/value or utility of actually feeling them. Happy and Caring are “positive” because as human beings we feel physical comfort and pleasure when we experience those. In contrast, when we feel Anger, Uncertainty or Anxiety — those correspond to feelings of physical discomfort or displeasure. (The root word of anxiety is angere — the Latin word for a choking sensation.) But many people reflexively think that negative emotions are not just physically unpleasant, but also fundamentally less valuable or useful. Once again, negative emotions are data, just like positive ones — and I showcase in a follow-up post that they are some of the most useful/valuable emotional data to understand. And since most other people try to dismiss, avoid or ignore them — your ability to interact with them productively can become a manager superpower and give you a competitive advantage.

Second, there is great variance across humans with regards to their natural level of human affect (the intensity with which they experience emotions) so if I were to ask a group of startup leaders to circle the emotions they can recall experiencing over the last week of work — some people would have several circles in that bottom/high-intensity row while others might not have circled a single emotion in that row. People often ask me if a certain affect range is “better” or “healthier.” With regards to intensity, the data is just data — and any differences are just natural diversity in our species.

However, in the words of one of my former teachers and an expert in interpersonal dynamics Gary Dexter, it is our “human birthright” to experience the entire range of human emotions across each of the families. So, if within that same group of leaders, someone reports whole columns where, even with a longer time-frame, they never circle any emotions — I’d encourage that person to get curious about what might be going on. (Suppressing a whole family of certain emotions? Quickly converting one emotion to another because of extreme discomfort? An inability to physically sense an entire family of emotion? Etc.)

Curious to get started? Download the feelings chart and start interacting with it. You could conduct a quick inventory exercise right now similar to the one I alluded to above. [Circle all the emotions you can recall feeling over your last week of work. Then, write in a * if you actually expressed that emotion out loud to another person. What do you notice about your results?] Or you could use this chart over the next two weeks to track your emotions live in the moment or during daily reflection.

If the feelings chart or scribbling on paper feels too old-school for you, you could also check out one of the myriad emotions or mood tracker apps out there. I have not found one I think is perfect, but the one I use on occasion and refer to clients is Mood Meter. I like the interface for identifying emotions on a 4-quadrant grid of energy level and positive/negative tracking. And I appreciate their intention to enable you to use the data to work on emotion regulation — but I find the tactics screen and features fall a little flat.

Personally, I’ve always thought of emotional precision as a skill. If you can break apart a bad mood to realize you’re feeling “frustrated, a little lost, disappointed and anxious” all at the same time — that’s much richer data for you to work with then “I feel crappy right now” — which is how most of us tend to casually report our data, if at all. It’s a skill I routinely build and refine myself, and I consistently coach others to do as well. So, when a client tells me they felt “weird” after the meeting or “awkward” after a conversation — I push them to dig in (sometimes even referencing the chart) to find more precise words to capture the emotions they experienced in the moment.

While I have always appreciated emotional precision on the more anecdotal/experiential level, I was thrilled to discover the work of the Feldman lab at Northeastern University where psychologists have been studying “emotional granularity” since the 1990s and have found through various studies that it is not only psychologically adaptive but also physically beneficial to us as humans. And, more importantly, it is indeed a skill you can cultivate over time to flex your brain, re-interpret your world in a more productive way and cope better with setbacks.

And that’s some truly exciting data as well.

For more on the topic of Emotions As Data, please check out my follow-up post: In Defense of Negative Emotions

Anamaria Nino-Murcia

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Keeping startup leaders sane and helping 'em grow.

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