When I took my first job fresh out of college, each time I’d encounter something my education hadn’t prepared me for, someone would say, “You’re not in school anymore.”

I would often hear managers lament that school wasn’t preparing students for the workplace the way they used to. I laugh thinking about that today because I still hear it forty years later.

The responsibility of a college or trade school is to provide a foundation to build upon. You learn about theory, processes, and probably a little of your discipline’s history. It’s taught logically and theoretically by teachers who follow a well-thought-out syllabus.

However, young workers can often be challenged in their first job because it’s not like school. It’s not always logical. The world you work in is made up of people, and people aren’t always rational.

People are emotional.

We often miscalculate the power of emotions. Emotions will make you do things you would never do if you were thinking!

Consider all the commercials you saw during the holiday season. Those commercials weren’t appealing to your logic. They appealed to your emotions. You heard you needed to buy a product because it would:

  • Make you happier
  • Make you more appealing to the opposite sex
  • Show your spouse you loved him or her
  • Skyrocket your career by wearing this brand of clothing

How logical is that? Not very.

You are handcrafted. There is no one like you. I love this prayer from the Psalms:

Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! It is amazing to think about. Your workmanship is marvelous—and how well I know it. Psalm 139:14 (TLB)

Yet, even though each of us is created uniquely, we often expect everyone to see things in the same way we do. It doesn’t work that way. My wife and I see things completely differently, which has made our marriage anything but boring.

Too often, we don’t understand our co-workers or those on the team we lead. When a behavior or reaction isn’t what we expect, we chalk it up to a simple difference in personality, saying, “That’s just Sally.”

Or, when someone surprises us with their reaction, we wonder to ourselves (or out loud behind the person’s back), “Where did that come from?”

But those reactions came from somewhere deep inside that person’s psyche. David Rock, PhD in Neuroscience of Leadership, through his groundbreaking research, became aware of something many us of don’t think about.

He found that our brain reacts to an emotional threat the same way it responds to a physical threat. In other words, if I feel threatened, I retreat.

His work noted five elements that cause people to feel emotionally threatened:

  • Status– how we perceive our relative importance to others.
  • Certainty– our brain likes predictability .
  • Autonomy– our sense of control over events or our work.
  • Relatedness– our community, and how safe we feel with others.
  • Fairness– how equitable we perceive the exchanges between people are.

I think there is a sixth element he missed in his research that is every bit as powerful.

  • Competence – our desire to feel like we’re good at what we do.

If we better understand people’s emotional reactions, we can better understand how to motivate them. For example: If a co-worker gets angry when they believe they are being micromanaged, giving them more choices will be a reward and a way to motivate them.

Keep an eye out for future articles as we dive deeper into each of these elements. But for now, each time you go to work and people aren’t acting logical, ask yourself what might be behind their reaction and think SCARF + C for hints about why.

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