Business  •  January 18, 2014

Cooler Heads Will NOT Prevail in the Future

Is it still true that “cooler heads prevail”? The reason why cooler heads prevailed in the past is because they were more productive, efficient, predictable, and consistent. These are valuable qualities especially for assembly-line type of jobs. And, this is why, I believe, our society frown upon public display for emotions. We are deemed “unprofessional” if we cry or yell at work. But now that most of the work that give advantages to cooler heads have been replaced by robots, we should rethink the roles of our emotions in business.

First, I want to establish the difference between controlling and self-regulating emotions. When we use the word “control”, we generally mean a deliberate, conscious act. That is, our thoughts must moderate our behavior. In contrast, I’m using the term “self-regulation” to mean automatic, mostly unconscious moderation of behavior. For instance, when eating, most people naturally stop once they feel full. They do not need to consciously intervene. It’s automatic and self-regulating. Overeaters do not have this self-regulating mechanism; they have to consciously control their eating habits. The same is true for alcoholics and drug addicts.

Many addicts have an “all or nothing” attitude. Alcoholics are either drunk all the time, or completely sober. And, if they even have a sip of wine during their sober period, they beat themselves up. I believe that some people are genetically predisposed to this type of extreme behaviors, and they have no choice but to employ this type of coping mechanisms, but being sober all the time, shouldn’t be considered an ideal goal. Whether you are drunk or sober, if you must resort to this type of extremity, you are still exhibiting an addictive behavior either way.

When you apply the same concept to our emotions, it becomes clear that being able to control our emotions is actually not desirable. Ultimately, we want our emotions to be self-regulating. If you aspire to be coolheaded (since your aspiration is conscious), you would be working on your ability to control your emotions, not on your ability to self-regulate. I believe this is true for parenting too as Teresa Graham Brett explains here. Trying to control your children’s emotions, does not teach them to self-regulate their emotions. For self-regulation, teaching by example is probably the most effective method.

When someone is controlling (not self-regulating) his emotions, it is relatively obvious. For instance, if you start talking to him about a subject that makes him uncomfortable, he will either shut down, or specifically tell you that he doesn’t want to talk about it. It is an attempt to consciously control his own emotions because otherwise he feels that his behavior would be too damaging to himself or others. His emotions are not self-regulating. This is very much like how alcoholics have to consciously stop themselves from drinking.

The mistake, I believe, many people make is that they keep controlling their own emotions, and therefore never learn to self-regulate. As explained in this article about self-regulation, consciously focusing on our own feelings “amplifies, magnifies, and distorts” our emotions. When you try to control your emotions, you are training your own executive functions (more specifically prefrontal cortex of your brain). What you ultimately want is for the emotional part of your brain to self-regulate without your executive functions intervening.

We typically think an emotionally mature person is someone who can stay calm in any situation. This is why we aspire to be coolheaded, but consciously mimicking their outward behavior does not reproduce what allows them to stay calm. You would be reversing the cause and effect. The big difference is that an emotionally mature person is not consciously trying to be calm, in the same way most people are not trying hard to stop themselves from drinking alcohol in the middle of the day, or from shooting up heroin.

For us to grow emotionally, we have to allow ourselves to express our emotions without conscious intervention. We need to stop regarding our emotions as something dirty or undesirable. Even anger and sadness exist for a reason. We need to allow ourselves to express them. Expressing them without consciously focusing on them would probably make them less harmful, as you would not be amplifying them.

Our desire to control anything is ultimately driven by fear. By controlling our own emotions, we would be giving into fear. Being able to control is not a sign of maturity. A better sign of maturity is your ability to accept, not control. When a cool-headed person calmly shuts down, avoiding potentially emotional situations, he neither accepts nor confronts his emotions. His primary concern is to keep up the cool facade. This would not lead to growth because he is not going to learn anything from it. It’s like sitting by the side of the pool, never jumping in the water.

Some people use art as a means of sublimating their emotions, but without being aware of what controlling does to their emotions, they would simply repeat the same mistake in making art also. Since their ideal is being in control of their own emotions, they would pursue the same ideal in art. Their art then would become a predictable product of their thought process, and they would learn nothing about themselves from their art (neither would their audience). To use art as a means of emotional growth, you must let go of your control. You have to allow yourself to express your emotions. And afterward, you can step back and think about what you created.

I believe that this artistic/creative process should also be extended to business. Now that robots have replaced most of the jobs that require efficiency, predictability, and consistency, we humans acting like robots to compete with them is pointless. What businesses need from humans is emotions. Cooler heads would no longer prevail in business. We need to create a business environment that embrace public display of emotions. We need to let ourselves be driven by our own emotions and see what comes out of it. Just as in art, we can then step back and think about it afterward. By maintaining an atmosphere that idealizes cooler heads, we would be blocking many creative ideas from coming out of us.

And, I say “we” here because this requires a social change. Our cultural attitudes towards our emotions must change. Just as children are hopelessly affected by how their parents behave, we are all affected by how others around us behave. There is only so much that we can do on our own. Because the ideal of “cooler heads” is so prevalent in our society, everyone tries to pretend. When you see two people engaged in a heated debate, you snidely mock their unbridled emotions. And, those who were arguing would then deny that they were being so emotional. Everyone wants to be perceived as “cooler heads”. The reason why you would mock unbridled emotions in others is because you know you have the same tendency in yourself. By pointing your finger at others, you allow yourself to feel superior. It’s a projection. So why don’t we all stop pretending? Embrace the fact that we are all emotional creatures? Stop thinking of our emotions as something undesirable and unproductive.

There is no need to encourage people to yell or cry, but we should be accepting of these emotional expressions, not deem them as inappropriate or unprofessional. Part of the reason why we deem them as unprofessional is because most of us have been conditioned by our parents and our society to think of these emotions are “bad”. This judgment makes the witnessing of these emotional expressions even more disturbing and distracting. If we didn’t judge in this way, seeing someone cry or yell in the office wouldn’t feel so disturbing. It’s the taboo that makes the situation worse than it needs to be.

In my experience many conflicts arise in business because we try to deny or negate our emotions in our desperate attempt to control them. Because the atmosphere is hostile to emotional expressions, we pretend poorly to be coolheaded. Like one lie leading to more lies, one act of pretense leads to more. This ironically clouds and distorts our judgement and we make bad decisions. We then unfairly blame our emotions for this. Our emotions, when they are not distorted, are no less rational than our thoughts, and our thoughts are no more rational than our emotions. The key to being creative is to keep them undistorted. As our factories have been taken over by robots and many repetitive tasks in offices have been automated by computers, we need to explore what makes us humans unique and valuable. For that reason, it’s time we start taking advantage of the power and the wisdom of our emotions.