The Emotional Economy

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By Nancy D. Solomon, M.A.

I want to talk to you about our relationship, but first I need to set a few things straight. Once upon a time the world was flat, everything that could be invented already had been, and the word relationship was banned from conversation in companies across America.

For decades we’ve been told that we must separate our business from our personal lives, that corporate America holds no space for the politics of the personal. We have been cautioned about the dangers of being “too sensitive,” “too caring,” and dare I say, “too courageous.” Those who violated the code and broke the relationship taboo risked more than a few “isms”: criticism, ostracism, and sexism. Those bold and brazen few were labeled as unprofessional, barred from the boardroom, and ultimately regarded as mere fluff amongst the tough.

We make emotional choices and then back them up with logic, reason, and data.Relationships can make us edgy and uncomfortable. Especially in business. They necessarily imply emotion, and emotion is a messy subject. It suggests chaos, upheaval, lack of control, and weakness—traits traditionally feared for their potentially negative impact on the bottom line. Numbers are nice and neat. They either add up or they don’t. Not so with people.

But things have dramatically changed in the past 10 years. Science has partnered with the psychology of performance and has provided us with stacks of statistics from institutions as old as money and as reliable as taxes. They all say the same thing: Logic does not lead. Emotions do. We make emotional choices and then back them up with logic, reason, and data. Even in business.

Loyalties develop when people feel emotionally invested—engaged if you will—in the outcome they attainFor the past 15 years, the field of cognitive neuro-science has greatly expanded its understanding of how emotions impact human learning and communications. The Gallup Organization, following suit, used these recent discoveries and integrated them with similar work in the fields of psychology, economics, and social sciences. Gallup devoted its extensive resources to an in-depth study of human behavior conducted from 1997 to 2001, interviewing almost 20 million customers on their opinions, attitudes, feelings, and behaviors.

Among the study’s conclusions:

  • Emotions drive our decision making.
  • Emotions take place outside our rational, willful awareness.
  • Emotional engagement increases the speed of learning, increases memory retention, and evokes emotions in others.

We are emotionally based beings. What we feel is more important than what we think. Every decision we make is in pursuit of an emotional goal. Our emotions dictate our decisions, not the other way around. Our emotions translate into every choice we make in our lives. And while it really seems quite simple, this not so new found philosophy is shaking the very foundation of American business. Welcome the era of the emotional economy!

The data we have is tumbling the antiquated patriarchy that was emotionally incompetent, decidedly un-savvy in relationship skills, and too darned frightened of anything related to feelings to pay any attention to the obvious—that people are human beings first and everything else second.

We have learned that consumers make purchases in pursuit of the emotional experience they seek. They return to the same businesses and become loyal to brands because of the way these businesses and brands make them feel. People buy products, mortgage homes, choose partnerships, develop hobbies, bank with certain institutions, and select their favorite grocery stores because these choices evoke desired feelings. Loyalties develop when people feel emotionally invested—engaged if you will—in the outcome they attain.

Although there has been a profusion of new information on consumer buying habits published in the past several years, one of the most conclusive studies was completed by the University of Florida in 2002. This national study analyzed the responses of 23,168 people to 240 advertising messages in 13 categories, from cars and appliances to groceries and other small-ticket items. The results, which appeared in the August 2002 issue of Journal of Advertising Research, concluded that emotions were nearly twice as important as knowledge in consumer buying decisions—that individuals may be interested in the technical aspect of a purchase item, but this interest is driven by the desire to achieve a specific emotional response. This evidence refutes the historical data that strongly implied that consumers made their purchases based on information, data, and logical conclusions and that if emotions were involved at all, it was purely incidental.

The emotionally engaged customer, the person or people who are thoroughly committed to you and your organization are not only going to be satisfied with your relationship but are also going to actively spread the word about how great you are. They will, in essence, become inadvertent employees of yours as they advocate your business to a population inaccessible to you.

Furthermore, we know that people choose a job in response to an emotional itch that needs scratching-and leave it for the very same reason. We know that only 30 percent of all U.S. employees are engaged in their work, while 54 percent of their colleagues are not-engaged, and 16 percent are actively disengaged.1 The price we pay for this lack of emotional commitment is about $250 billion a year.2

So although we may choose to indulge ourselves in “the facts” and try to convince ourselves that our decisions are sane and logical and that we are, indeed, quite clever, it is really our unconscious emotional tentacles that keep pulling us beyond our own reason, demanding such intangibles as happiness, satisfaction, and fulfillment.

What this means for business—the very implication of introducing emotions and relationships as tools for strategizing production and profit—is staggering in light of what we once thought to be true. It is a frontier that, at the very least, deserves exploration and attention.

In the simplest terms, the information we now have articulates the desire for people to expand their functional understanding of relationship, to breach their own relationship boundaries, and to become fully emotionally engaged at work, with their colleagues and with the company that employs them. This would be true at any level of employment.

So our core has been captured: We are relational beings. We are concerned about our relationship with ourselves, our relationships with our family and friends, our relationships with our employees and employers, and our relationships with our customers.

We’re responsible for our feelings. We value our intuition. We love our families and friends and we really want to be able to say that we love our jobs, though often we can’t. We need to connect to feel life satisfaction. We want to bring all of ourselves to work. We’re willing to give up a heck of a lot just to be happy. Fifty-two percent of us said we’d trade a day’s pay for a day off every week to have a more fulfilling, stress-free, and enjoyable life. Perhaps it’s not only emotionally engaged customers and employees that we seek. Perhaps we also seek to fully engage ourselves with our own lives before mortality makes that decision for us.

Which brings me back to the conversation about our relationship. If you and I are going to work together, we’d better find true value in doing so. You need to know that you can trust me and I am obligated to myself to feel the same. We need to be honest with each other—to stay in integrity with the very values we say our respective companies are built on.

We need to tend to our relationship: to communicate clearly, to express ourselves with authenticity, to seek first to understand when we do get conflicted (which, inevitably, we will because we’re both deeply vested in who we are and what we do). Our relationship is going to take some time to build-it won’t happen overnight, nor should it. We will learn to zig and zag together. I will learn your strengths and you will learn mine. We can certainly compensate for each other’s weaknesses.

Neither of us should become dependent on the other; that would create a one-upmanship guaranteed to destroy all of the above. What I hope for both of us is that we become mutually interdependent—that I learn what you need and can provide it in a way that makes you feel great about doing business with me and that you can do the same for me. You need my product or service and I, concurrently, need you as a customer.

This relationship of ours may seem fragile at first. Neither one of us is experienced in negotiating the commodity of emotions. But I’m committed. And I can tell by the way you respond to my staff and to me that you feel the same way. Thank you for doing business with me. You make my job worth doing. Now don’t you feel better for having had this talk? I do.

1 Curt Coffman and Gabriel Gonzalez-Molina, Follow This Path: How the World’s Greatest Organizations Drive Growth by Unleashing Human Potential (New York: Warner Books, October 2002).

2 Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz, The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003). Widmeyer Research & Polling, Washington, D.C., August 2003.

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