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17 February 2021

Marc Brackett: “Emotions are the most powerful force in the workplace”

The founder of Yale’s Center for Emotional Intelligence explains why the feelings of employees “should haunt the sleep of every boss in the world”.

By Kate Mossman

How strange, if you think about it, that we’re taught to keep emotions out of the workplace. That in the very place we are required to expend most of our energy, our feelings are seen as a destabilising and disruptive force. To think that a dozen people in a meeting room – now, on a Zoom call – might be little crucibles of feeling: disappointment, excitement, anxiety, eagerness, shame, and their faces show none of it. The recent explosions at a Handforth Parish Council meeting were a rare glimpse of the kind of thing that’s going on under the surface.

Marc Brackett is currently researching the most common problem of the office space: venting. “Why is the default for many people venting rather than problem solving?” he asks from his home in Connecticut. “Research shows that venting does not actually help you. It’s a trick our brain plays on us: we go around saying, ‘I can’t take it anymore’ and you feel like you’ve got it out, but you still feel like crap afterwards and the reason for that is that the feeling itself remains unchanged.” Brackett’s studies also show that people rarely express their gripes at work to the colleague who can do anything about it.

Brackett is the founding director of the Center for Emotional Intelligence at Yale University and the creator of RULER (Recognise, Understand, Label, Express and Regulate), a five-step approach to managing your own feelings that currently being tested across the world and trickling into the UK education system. “Recognise and understand your own feelings, label them, express them and regulate them,” Brackett explains.

Schools want it, tech companies want it and Wall Street wants it. So many people want Brackett’s ideas, in fact, that like anyone who does well in their job, he has risen to a position of management and doesn’t get time to dream any more. Instead, he worries about the way his employees feel. That concern, he says, “should haunt the sleep of every CEO, supervisor, manager and boss in the world. It is the prime determination of virtually everything that will happen in an organisation, good and bad.”

Brackett believes that emotions are the most powerful force in the workplace: “Our cognitive abilities, our creativity, the way we make decisions, our level of engagement and our productivity are entirely influenced by our emotional state.” For someone leading such a Utopian, idealistic project he is comfortingly tired, honest and humanely downbeat. He’s fed up with Zoom: “I can’t take it anymore,” he says. As far as he’s concerned, there is nothing positive about the video platform, it only fosters “a far greater sense of disconnection between management and workforce”. Also, his hairdresser got Covid and he thinks he looks a mess.

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At the heart of RULER is what Brackett calls a “granular” approach to feeling. The technique was first developed to better understand the behaviour of children and it should be no surprise that it is entirely transferable to the workforce. I am angry, one can say to oneself: but what is lying under that anger? Is it shame? Disappointment? “Recognise and understand your own feelings, label them, express them and regulate them,” he repeats. Separating out the different strata of feeling helps you back down from an emotional precipice, see what has triggered you and, once the smoke has cleared, understand and incorporate the feelings of others. In fact, it’s as much about learning to decipher others’ emotions as it is your own. Brackett likes to tell the story of the company MD, with the corner office overlooking the Hudson, who said to him, “I don’t need your stuff – but I might teach it to my staff so they learn how to deal with me.”

[See also: Sophie McBain on Zoom and social anxiety]

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Brackett spends his days on the campus of Yale regulating his reactions to one of his biggest triggers: entitlement. His father was an air-conditioning salesman and he grew up not knowing what Yale was. When handing over $3 for a coffee in Starbucks, somewhere deep down inside him his temper flares, too.

Brackett was sexually abused from the age of five to ten and unable to tell his parents: the only person he eventually talked to was his uncle. The free, non-judgemental and endlessly supportive dialogue that ensued between the young Brackett and “uncle Marvin” formed his beliefs and inspired his best-selling book Permission to Feel. He was bullied at school, so his father got him involved in martial arts, at which he excelled. The leap from karate to the Yale Center of Emotional Intelligence is entirely logical, he points out: “The martial arts were a strategy for becoming self-aware and socially aware; to learn how to manage emotions. It is a philosophy. A philosophy of deflecting. If someone attacks you, don’t go like this,” he says, crossing his arms in front of his face, “Do the parry.” He glides his outward, pushing an imaginary opponent away.

The main resistance Brackett meets with his work is a concern over productivity. If people in an office sit around talking about their feelings all day, critics say, no one will get anything done. The rage would be uncontainable and the moaning would never stop. “But remember, it’s not about talking about feelings,” he says, “it’s about managing them in an effective way.”

In a survey of 15,000 diverse employees across the US, Brackett’s co-workers at Yale found that 50 per cent were stressed, frustrated or overwhelmed, and a third felt happy less than 50 per cent of the time. When asked what they wanted to feel at work – a big part of Brackett’s approach is visualising that – one of the most commonly used words was “valued”, and women were twice as likely to use it as men. A 2018 Gallup survey revealed that of 30,000 US employees, over half were “not engaged” at work: the estimated cost to businesses is $450bn a year in the US, and staff turnover is the biggest drain.

It is not surprising that the workers of the US, when asked by concerned emotional scientists, would say they were having a miserable time in the office. But there are deeper, more essential forces at work in that dissatisfaction. The biggest emotional needs of employees, Brackett says, are to belong, and to feel seen and heard. Everything is an emotional moment: “Saying you think you deserve a promotion is really saying: I’m worth more to you than you realise, and I feel underappreciated.”

Brackett encourages us to ask: “What are the unwritten rules in your work place to guide how emotions are expressed? What feelings do you experience most often throughout the day? What emotional expressions are acceptable? Frowned upon?”

It is a pleasing irony to discover that the Center for Emotional Intelligence went through a period of dysfunction itself – due to staff members who have since departed. As the emotional climate recovered, Brackett realised that if he expressed his own vulnerabilities as a boss, his staff would start to express theirs. But employees remain more attracted to his programmes than supervisors. The problem is that it’s all an interior process: every member of the workforce, every schoolchild, has to learn to apply RULER to themselves.

“I think it’s going to be a lot of work, I really do. I am hopeful but at the same time worried,” he says, going “granular” on his own feelings, “because the amount of effort we have to put into it is much greater than everyone thinks it is.”

[See also: Sarah Manavis on lockdown’s impact on our mental health]

This article appears in the 24 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Britain unlocks