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How do Emotions Affect Learning at Workplace (Part 5)

Updated on July 10, 2011

Learning has become one important aspect of organizational life may it be at individual, group or organizational levels. Learning is an emotional process - learning under the guidance of a loved teacher or a respected manager is different from learning in the presence of a hated teacher or a cynical supervisor. Learning as part of an exciting group is different from learning in a group with rivalries and acrimony. Learning in an organization which allows experimentation, innovation and failure is different from learning in an organization that values tradition, obedience and avoidance of failure at all costs. It is not the case that cynical managers, acrimonious groups and defensive organizations discourage learning. What they do is to encourage a kind of learning that promotes defensive attitudes, conservatism and destruction of all new ideas as potentially threatening and subversive.

The emotional intelligence enthusiasts propose ideas on emotions drawing from brain, behavioural and psychoanalytic research and framed them in the language of management learning and customer care. Among them are:

  • Many types of work in today's organizations depend crucially on emotional skills, such as empathy, sensitivity to the feelings of others, anger and emotion management, self-awareness and so forth.
  • These skills are part of an entity which can be seen as emotional literacy or emotional intelligence, which individuals acquire to different extents in early life and develop subsequently.
  • Emotional intelligence can be quantified and individuals with higher emotional intelligence are better able to lead others, strike deals, handle relationships or sell products, through intelligent deployment of their own emotions and the management and exploitation of the emotions of others.
  • Unlike intellectual intelligence, emotional intelligence is uniquely suited to being developed and enhanced through sensitivity packages, role play and other types of training.
  • If emotional intelligence can be learned, learning itself is conditioned by emotional intelligence, for instance, in the ability to sustain motivation, to control disappointment, to tame anxiety, and to form emotional relations with people capable of teaching.

Among academics, the concept of emotional intelligence has been critically scrutinized. Thus Fineman (2000a,b), in a trenchant critique of this approach, argues that emotional intelligence represents an attempt to quantify and tame emotion, making it the servant of the organization's bottom line. Some feelings are appropriated and developed, in as much as they help the organization - empathy, hope, excitement, pride and so forth. Others, like greed, envy, anger and disgust, are controlled and repressed. In all these ways, emotional intelligence enthusiasts, while claiming to liberate emotion, seek to subordinate it to reason and in particular the instrumental reason of business and organizations.

Emotional Intelligence also captures and simplifies emotion, particularly in determining a moral order of emotions where "highly" emotionally intelligent individuals are judged as more organizationally worthy than those of "low" emotional intelligence (echoing debates on the tyranny of IQ); it creates a dependence on the emotion consultant and his/her values, questionnaires and training courses; and it misleadingly assumes that we can readily identify, sift and select "appropriate" emotions.

Social construction theorists have argued that emotions are learned not in accordance with managerial dictates, but as a way of making sense of social situations and functioning effectively in them. Emotions can be pleasant and exciting (positive) or unpleasant and disturbing (negative) depending on interpretations given by individuals and tested through their relations with others. In this way, they function to preserve what a person values in different circumstances, while at the same time signalling the need for change. Social constructionist approaches to emotion support the following ideas:

  • Emotions are social phenomena; emotions are culturally shaped - people learn to experience grief at funerals and excitement in football field.
  • Emotions are constituted in the act of description through language and enacted in the presence of audiences. Social and cultural contexts provide the rules, scripts and vocabularies of emotional display for different audiences: self, loved one, boss, subordinate etc.
  • Emotions are learned aspects of behaviour and are situation-specific; they are instrumental in defining relations of deference, position, status and authority;
  • Emotions are generally not irrational but quite practical; in many instances, they represent conscious judgements aimed at bringing about specific outcomes.
  • Emotion labour represents the psychological work expended in reconciling personal feelings with socially sanctioned displays of emotion

According to social constructionist approaches, individuals may adopt certain emotional responses (smiling, nodding, expressing interest or concern) in work situations, but these responses are far from simple expressions of emotional intelligence. They simply represent a form of compliance to management dictates, which often turn into cynicism or snarling when their superiors are not looking. Nor are these emotional responses without a cost; they take a toll on the employee who may experience feelings of alienation and inauthenticity occasionally leading to breakdown or burn-out. It is here that psychoanalytic approaches to emotion can make a very valuable contribution.


Psychoanalysis approaches emotion, like social constructionist approaches, as a fundamental motivational principle in human affairs and dismisses the view that emotion can be quantified within a unified category such as emotional intelligence or that it can be deployed unproblematically in the interest of organizations. However, the two approaches diverge in a number of important respects. Psychoanalytic approaches :

  • Regard emotion and rationality as motivational principles in conflict, at least some of the time. Thus, rationalization is a key defensive mechanism whereby rational explanations obfuscate troublesome emotional motives.
  • Emphasize the mobility and plasticity of emotions, not in response to external factors, but as a consequence of psychological work. Thus envy can easily be transformed to anger, which in turn may give way to guilt, which may manifest itself in attempts to console and repair.
  • Stress the quality of ambivalence in most important emotions; thus hate is rarely encountered unadulterated by love, envy by fascination, anger by guilt and fear by attraction.
  • Stress that emotion work is not merely external (i.e. reconciling feelings to the requirements of social situations) but also internal, that is in coping with conflicts, contradictions and ambivalences and keeping some sense of order in potentially chaotic emotional states.
  • Persist against much opposition that there is a quantitative aspect to emotion; some emotions, such as mild envy or disappointment, may be held at bay by countervailing stronger emotions, though unopposed powerful emotions almost invariably lead either to discharge (through verbal or physical actions which have counter-productive or damaging consequences) or to defensive operations which lead to their neutralization or repression.

Above all, however, psychoanalytic approaches insist that there is a primitive, pre-linguistic, pre-cognitive and pre-social level of emotions, an inner world of passion, ambivalence and contradiction which may be experienced or repressed, expressed or controlled, diffused or diluted, but never actually obliterated.

If we think of emotions as having a life of their own, which might be in contradiction to, or expressed fully or partially through our cognition to different degrees in different times, we can think through all sorts of situations with which most people must be familiar: experiencing feelings we cannot express to our satisfaction; having feelings that we can express but that others find difficult to understand; and most important perhaps, the regular experience of contradictions between our thoughts and our feelings.


In this sense, they maintain the core feature of the ancient Greek word for emotion, pathos, an experience which is not willed, controlled or judged, but rather suffered, coped with and submitted to. Thus, at the cost of some simplification, while social constructionists view emotion as derivative of social scripts, signs and scenarios in which we become linguistically enmeshed, psychoanalytic approaches view emotions as generating scripts, signs and scenarios. Where, for instance, the former will identify anger as consequent of a situation read as insult, the latter will view the experience of being insulted as derivative of a deeper anger and resentment (Gabriel, 1998).

It would then be fair to say that if emotional intelligence theorists view organizations as machines for the control and deployment of emotions and social constructionists view them as emotional arenas where emotions are performed in front of audiences, psychoanalytic authors view organizations as emotional cauldrons where fantasies, desires and passions lead a precarious co-existence with plans, calculations and the application of scientific thinking.


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