Spotlight Leadership: How to use emotions to boost innovation

Many people believe emotions have no place in business, they consider emotions as a distraction that can cloud judgement. However, emotions are a natural part of being human, and they influence our decisions all the time, both in our personal and professional lives. So how can leaders manage emotions and still make the best decisions for the success of their organisations? 

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14 Apr 2023
How to use emotions to boost innovation - conference

In a recent leadership webinar hosted by EDHEC Global MBA Programme Director Sandra Richez, Professor Bernhard shared insights and strategies on how to use emotions to boost innovation.   

Prof. Dr. Fabian Bernhard is a Professor of Management and Business Psychology at EDHEC. In his academic work he specializes in the emotional dynamics in businesses and has worked for several years at a renowned financial consulting firm in New York.  

Emotions are everywhere 

Economic researchers coined the term "Homo economicus", homo for human and economicus for economic, the characterisation of an individual as an ideal decision maker with complete rationality.  “When we think about finance and emotions, most people believe that these are two different worlds. They have the image of finance and banking professionals as people who want to stay far from emotions, that they make rational decisions and are not influenced by emotions,” stated Prof. Bernhard.  

However, this idea of homo economicus is a simplification for business models because in reality, anyone who has led a team knows that emotions are always present. They drive our motivation and influence us in many ways. Even in the financial sector emotions are omnipresent, when one considers how the stock market works, and how it can fluctuate based on current events. People in this field take actions based on feelings of confidence or lack of confidence, even fear. 

And this does not only apply to financial sector. Marketing is highly driven by the idea of managing emotions, influencing people’s behaviour. Many marketing campaigns are about creating emotional connection for the consumer.  

Leveraging emotions to make better decisions  

Leaders should learn how to regulate their emotions rather than dismiss them as having no place in business. By learning to manage their emotions, leaders can make the most of their positive effects and minimize their negative effects to make their businesses successful. 

The first step in preparing to manage emotions is to build emotional intelligence. Emotional Intelligence can help leaders make better informed decisions and be more effective in their leadership. Four factors are associated with emotional intelligence. 

  • Understanding your own emotions  
  • Perceiving emotions  
  • Managing emotions  
  • Using emotions  

An emotional intelligent leader understands himself and what triggers his reactions and secondly, knows how to control these triggers. Building on this, he or she can develop an understanding of other people: What drives them?  What motivates them?

“This is the third dimension of emotional intelligence. Knowing how others ‘tick’” illustrates Prof. Bernhard. “When you know how others feel and react, you can influence and motivate them”, and become a more successful leader.         

Which emotions are associated with innovation?  

Many people associate positive emotions with creativity, and organisations like Facebook and Google that rely on innovation invest a lot to create an atmosphere of positive emotions in their offices. They understand that positive emotions like joy and excitement can inspire creativity and drive innovation.   

Research also tells us that more positive emotions are great for innovation. A study by Theresa Amabile, Professor of Business Administration in the Entrepreneurial Management unit at Havard, indicates that there is a linear relationship between positive emotions and creativity, that positive emotions relate positively to creativity in an organisation.   

However, based on his own research, Prof. Bernhard found that “negative emotions like anger and frustration can also be a valuable source of inspiration. Some of the world-renowned artists like Van Gogh and Edward Munch are not known for being the happiest and most positive people, however they were very creative and innovative in their field.”  

Negative emotions can be used to boost innovation by channelling anger and frustration into finding new ideas and looking at things from a different perspective. “Think of the time you had a bad service, result or experience that enraged you so much that you wanted to do something about it.” underlined Prof. Bernhard.    

How do emotions affect creativity?  

Prof. Bernhard stated that research also indicates that highest levels of creativity are present when both, positive and negative emotions, are present “because it’s about the level of arousal the emotions create and less about whether it’s a positive or negative emotion. Positive emotions like excitement lead to high levels of arousal, therefore can lead to high levels of creativity. However, a feeling of relaxation which can be a positive emotion, has a low level of arousal, therefore is linked to a low level of creativity. Negative emotions like anger provoke high levels of arousal and therefore can also be linked to creativity.” he emphasised. 

Emotions and innovation 

Higher emotions are those emotions developed later in life and can be culturally and environmentally influenced. Two higher emotions, guilt and shame, can directly impact creativity and innovation.  

How to use emotions to boost innovation

Professor Bernhard explained that “shame-prone people tend to withdraw from failure, and don’t attempt a second try. Guilt-prone people on the other hand tend to see failure as a challenge, are more proactive and will readily try until they succeed.” 

Emotions as a signal

He recommended “taking emotions as a signal from your body telling you something  rather than considering them as negative or positive feelings to be avoided or pursued.” 

“Leaders should create a supportive environment where people are encouraged to learn from their mistakes and not be ashamed to fail. This will result in more innovative teams in the long run.” concluded Professor Bernhard.

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