“We need HR in the conference room right now! An employee complained about workplace harassment, and we need HR to begin the investigation right away!”

Just when you thought you could take the afternoon to review job applicants and run payroll for the week, there’s another HR emergency!  You roll your eyes, huff and puff, grab your notebook, and stomp towards the conference room.

While you know investigating workplace harassment claims is an important part of your job, you’re frustrated and angry that the rest of your day is not going as planned. You think to yourself, “Employees are driving me crazy!”  You really want to get control of your emotions and shift your attention, but thinking about that only escalates your frustration. What do you do now?

We can’t really control our emotions, but we can easily dampen our emotional response to make a more thoughtful, intentional decision.  Don’t put pressure on yourself to control emotions.  Dampen your response and manage your decisions instead.

Every Experience is Filtered Through Emotions

We don’t think without connecting to an emotion. Our thoughts and experiences are filtered through our emotions, even though we’re not always aware of it.  Acknowledging and naming emotions leads to new thoughts and insights. Here’s how it works.

The limbic system is the emotional center of your brain. It colors and impacts our thoughts and experiences through emotions. When our emotions are triggered, the amygdala in the limbic system can get highjacked and compromise clear thinking and decision making. When we investigate workplace harassment claims or respond to a new government regulation, our emotions can interfere with our ability to absorb information accurately, think clearly, or draw sound conclusions.


Name Your Emotion to Tame Your Brain

Tame your brain by naming the emotion you experience. Don’t spend time getting in touch you’re your feelings; just name the emotion you’re feeling. Accurately labeling the emotion—even a negative, defensive emotion—tames the limbic system and stalls an amygdala hijack.

This sounds counterintuitive, right? If you’re feeling furious at an employee who refuses to get to work on time, and you say, “I’m furious!” won’t your brain just spiral deeper into more fury? No, it won’t.

That’s because your brain craves certainty and clarity. When you accurately name the way you feel, your brain experiences certainty and clarity. It’s as if your brain says, “Sure, I know what fury is. I know what you mean when you say you’re feeling furious. And now that I know what you’re feeling, I can dampen that emotion, so we can think clearly and decide what to do next.”


I’m Emotionally Illiterate! How Do I Name an Emotion?

Most of us didn’t take a class in high school or college on emotional literacy. We don’t have extensive practice identifying and naming emotions that we feel.  We tend to be aware of generalized emotions (happy, sad, fearful), or polarizing emotions (joyful, depressed), but that’s just the beginning of emotional literacy.  We need to know specific emotions, so we can name them accurately to dampen our response.

Don’t enroll in an emotional literacy course, or spend hours studying emotions.  Search the Internet for “emotional literacy list” or “emotional vocabulary list,” and print your favorite list. Some are alphabetical lists, others will be diagrams or models with similar emotions grouped together.

Select the one that is easiest for you to use. Put it in your notebook, and carry it with you throughout the day.  When an employee does something to trigger emotions, scan the list, select the exact emotion you’re feeling and name it. That’s it. Don’t make it complicated. Name your emotion to tame your brain.


OK, I Named the Emotion, Now What?

Now you can ask yourself a couple of questions to help you make better decisions and take action.  Here are some brain-based questions to help you move forward:

  • What can I learn from this situation? While investigating workplace harassment claims is not an enjoyable task, approaching it as a learning experience dampens our emotions and helps HR professionals think clearly.
  • What priority is this? Prioritizing and reprioritizing difficult tasks gives us clarity and certainty. Prioritize based on when a difficult task must be completed, who can help you, and how important the task is to employees and the organization.
  • Is this normal or usual? HR sees it all, so ask yourself if the issue is truly unique. Is it unusual to implement a new, HR-related government regulation? No, this happens quiet often. Is this the first time in the history of the universe that an organization has to layoff employees? No, this happens on occasion. Remind your brain that other HR professionals and other organizations experience these challenges, too.
  • What does this look like from other perspectives? Think about the situation through a variety of perspectives? What does the new compensation regulation look like through an employee’s eyes? What about the manager’s lens? What would our customers say about implementing this change? Answering these questions isn’t about looking at difficult situations through rose-colored glasses and making everything seem good or favorable. Looking at the situation from different perspectives sparks your thinking and actions towards a solution.

The next time you’re in an HR emergency, triggered by crazy employees, upset about unrealistic regulations, or frustrated by the busy-ness of HR work, simply name the emotion you’re experiencing, and you’ll give your brain a chance to start thinking clearly.

After all, if there’s one person in the organization who needs to think clearly and make good decisions, it’s you, the HR professional!


Jeff Nally is a professional speaker, author, executive coach, and HR professional. He is the president of Nally Group, Inc., creating no-nonsense neuroscience solutions for HR leaders to be more human at work. He can be reached at Jeff@NallyGroup.com, 502.810.4116, and www.NallyGroup.com.