How Being 'the Emotional Type' Can Actually Help Your Entrepreneurial Career
I don’t know when it happened, but somewhere during my transition from consultant to business school professor, I developed an implicit belief that when it comes to business, I should leave my emotions at the door. I wasn’t alone in this kind of thinking.
I saw many managers who also believed it was inappropriate to express strong emotions at work, and that doing so could hinder a person’s decision-making or impede performance.
The problem is, business isn’t just a numbers game. Consider all the emotions entrepreneurship involves: the anxiety that builds up before you make a pitch, the frustration you feel being rejected by potential investors, the dread you feel at night worrying that your latest endeavor may fail . . . these are all powerful reactions.
So, what should entrepreneurs do with these emotions? Suppress them or ignore them and soldier on? As research in psychology and business has demonstrated for decades, the answer is a resounding no. Below are seven ways emotions can help you make better decisions:
1. Suppressing your emotions makes you exhausted and unpleasant.
Ignoring your emotions is a physically demanding process that leads to burnout and decreased performance. But, as studies show, it also leads to decreased social functioning: less social support, less closeness to others and lower social satisfaction.
Instead of shutting down, use your emotions as cues to take action.
2. Negative emotions are helpful signposts on our road toward positive change.
As my own recent research suggests, emotions are functional. They prepare us to take action to resolve pressing challenges. Negative emotions in particular can serve a diagnostic function: signaling to us that a problematic or difficult situation can and should be changed.
Take the above example of being rejected by a potential investor. If you went in hoping for a positive outcome, it would be natural to feel angry or frustrated from the criticism you receive. The catch is, that criticism could be valid and useful to you as you refine your pitch. But, if you’re overwhelmed by your emotional reaction, you won’t have the clarity of mind to make use of it.
What matters in this case is where you direct your energy after experiencing anger.
3. Learning to address the real source of your frustration helps you channel emotion effectively.
My research also suggests that you can become disciplined enough to see your anger and frustration as a signal of a larger problem that should be addressed. The key here is not to suppress your anger, but to proactively regulate its experience.
Rather than vent your frustration by attacking others or lashing out at subordinates -- an unproductive outlet for your emotion -- you can train yourself to see your momentary setback as an obstacle to overcome and learn from. In this way, your frustration can be channeled effectively. For example, the entrepreneurs I’ve interviewed say that they are most effective when they take a step back after feeling frustrated; they then gather their thoughts or collect more data about what went wrong.
Yes, mistakes may have been made, but if you can direct your frustration toward the bigger picture, you can use your negative energy as a learning opportunity. Just take the advice of Thomas Edison, who famously said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
4. Letting our emotions run free suggests alternatives we otherwise have ignored.
Negative emotions can often help spark ideas for an entirely new venture or organization.
Take the story of author and entrepreneur Ric Edelman. After being scammed by a financial advisor, Edelman used the fury he felt to found his own highly successful financial services company based on his vision of actually helping customers seeking financial advice. This proactive channeling Edelman did led to positive results: He was ranked the No. 1 Independent Financial Advisor in the United States by Barron’s in 2009, 2010 and 2012, and his show The Truth About Money appears on public TV nationwide.
The message? You, too, can channel your larger frustrations into positive efforts. For example, being upset with the current state of politics could motivate a startup to change the way we govern, or motivate you to start a non-profit organization. Being frustrated with the current healthcare system could spark innovative ideas to improve the way care is provided, or to lower the cost of insurance.
The next time you feel aggravated, angry or even embarrassed, take some time to write down your thoughts and ideas about what is frustrating you. Doing so could lead to a new idea or breakthrough in your current work.
5. Re-directing anger helps both others and ourselves.
Anger can be especially effective when combined with beneficial motives, or the desire to help and benefit others. As studies have shown, helping others has an even greater positive impact on our stress levels than does being helped. So, learning to direct our anger away from lashing out and toward some larger purpose or cause can be our best way to turn a momentary negative into a net positive for everyone.
6. Being open to, but not overbearing in, our anger, is ideal.
While we shouldn’t chronically suppress our emotions, expressing our anger and frustration too often can have negative implications.
One important downside is that being angry can make us overconfident. Because overconfidence is negatively associated with the performance of startups (consider the example of ex-Uber CEO Travis Kalanick), it's important for entrepreneurs to make sure they can control and regulate their experience of anger.
7. Feeling vulnerable is underrated. Just Ask Uber's CEO.
Even feeling afraid, if you dare admit it, can be helpful to an entrepreneur.
For example, Uber’s new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, earned a lot of positive PR when he released a memo admitting he was “scared” by the magnitude of his new opportunity; but he also noted that he saw the position as a welcome learning opportunity: “[T]he times of greatest learning for me have been when I’ve been through big changes, or taken on new roles -- you have to move out of your comfort zone and develop muscles that you didn’t know you had.”
The experience of fear, then, can be diagnostic, helping you to recognize a potentially dangerous situation in advance. If the development of a new product isn’t going well, or a venture is on track to failure, that expectation can trigger fear and worry in us. But instead of allowing our fears to restrict or paralyze us, allowing ourselves to feel afraid can help us be proactive in our search for a solution like additional feedback or the use of an additional test prior to launch.
In sum, entrepreneurs, like everyone else, feel a range of negative emotions, but those experiences can be useful, even functional, when we apply them proactively. So, learn how to control and adapt to your negative emotional experiences, and channel the potential energy from your anger or fear into positive action.
Second, guide your anger toward addressing a frustrating issue. See it as an obstacle to overcome rather than the excuse to look for someone to blame. Third, realize that your anger can be used to spark new ideas, especially once you learn to redirect that anger into new efforts to help others.