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ATD Blog

The Emotional Dimension of Performance and OKRs

Friday, September 4, 2020

Human emotions are as complex as they are varied. In a span of one day, we all experience a significant number of emotional highs and lows. An average person in a high-stress environment may experience even more. Emotions do not take a break, and they always influence our behavior, performance, and relationships.

We read about the significance of leaders understanding the effect of their behavior on organizational performance. Rarely do we read about the link between disruptive emotions and achieving key results. Leadership as influence is being able to lead other people to higher levels of performance. It is about the leader and team members connecting in a way that they can focus on objectives rather than some fear or threat trigger.

Emotional Awareness and the Link to OKRs

We define organizational performance as the ability of people to engage objectives and produce key results (OKRs). A critical part of understanding your behavior and how it directly relates to your influence as a leader is being aware of your emotions. Once you gain that awareness, you can learn to manage your emotions and the responses they generate from others. In doing so, you create a culture of performance where the leader and team members are connected at a high level of positive emotions and produce results at high levels.

While you can stimulate, inspire, and detect emotions in others, you cannot control their emotions. Influential leaders are adept at handling their emotions, and this competency is useful with their relationships. It sets them free from the negative energies stirred up by emotional interactions and places them in a position to model emotionally balanced behavior. More importantly, it enables them to be responsive to others’ needs, which is a primary contributor to employee engagement.

What Is Emotional Awareness?

Twenty years ago, the idea of emotions affecting personal and professional success, productivity, and performance was given a new name: emotional intelligence (EI) . EI—first defined in an article by psychologists Peter Salovey and John Mayer—is “the subset of social intelligence that involves the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions.” Popularized and expanded by Daniel Goleman, EI (or EQ for emotional quotient) has remained relevant in the fields of organization and leadership development.


Emotional awareness operates under the same principles as EI. Its message is simple: When you are emotionally aware, you are conscious of others’ emotions and are more able to bring out the best of their behavior and performance. When you are emotionally unaware, you cannot relate well to others and engage them, and you are more likely to cause dissatisfaction, conflict, and performance dysfunction.

Impact on the Workforce

Individual leader behavior is the singular most important predictor to a team’s performance. A leader’s emotional awareness is important because employees relate to their leaders on an emotional level in several ways. First, how employees feel (for example, awed, intimidated, indifferent, impressed) about their leaders influences the way they do their job and the way they behave on the job. This feeling extends to whether they stay or leave the organization and whether they act as ambassadors (or proud advocates) of the organization.

Second, a leader’s words, attitudes, and behavior can incite various negative or positive emotions in their employees. Even followers who manage their emotions well can be affected by this emotional energy. It is the inadvertent or unconscious control that leaders have over the emotional state of their followers that can distort the dynamic between management and employees. By creating confusion for their employees’ mental capacity, leaders do so at their own performance peril. The human brain is good at focusing on growth, achievement, and challenges. It also excels at responding to threats, fear, and anxiety. But it cannot do both at the same time.


Third, a leader’s professional decisions, strategies, and actions can be taken personally by some employees and create an unintended emotional response. In unstable financial climates, everyone is nervous about losing their jobs; any change to current practices may be misconstrued as economic instability and stimulate strong emotional responses such as anger and fear. If your goal as a leader is to cultivate an organization where people are focused on objectives and creating the desired results, then you need to focus on the link between emotional awareness and OKRs.

Emotional Triggers and OKRs

The key to maintaining focus on objectives and achieving key results is managing emotional triggers. Managing emotional triggers is related to resilience strategies for performance. Emotionally aware leaders understand their own (and, by extension, their employees) emotional triggers. Emotional triggers are people, events, conditions, or experiences that arouse intense negative reactions. Incompetence, micromanagement, constantly missing or incomplete information, arrogant and superior attitude, lack of communication, and excessive numbers of unproductive meetings are just some of the emotional triggers at play in the workplace. Once triggered, an emotional reaction may stir up other negative memories and negate any positive experiences on the job. Once this begins to happen in the brains of team members, performance begins to suffer.

In sum, emotions are a way we feel about our thinking. Our thoughts are the primary trigger to emotions in a cause and effect relationship. How you choose to think about an event or another person directly relates to the emotions triggered by those thoughts. We are in our behavior what we are in our thinking. We are what we think. Emotions are critical to how people connect and engage their work with their leader. A positive emotional connection is imperative for a high-performance culture. Leaders must learn to lead the brains of their people to higher level of performance. Doing so, leaders will get the key results they desire. That’s worth thinking about today.

About the Author

Michael E. Frisina is founder and president of The Frisina Group and The Center for Influential Leadership. He is responsible for teaching, publishing, and speaking on the current trends in organizational performance. Dr. Frisina is a retired career officer the United States Army Medical department serving in a variety of leadership positions of increasing responsibility.

Dr. Frisina's professional faculty positions include The United States Military Academy at West Point, New York; The Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences and School of Medicine, Bethesda, Maryland; The Academy of Health Sciences, San Antonio, Texas, and Chairman, Health Administration Advisory Council, American Public University/American Military University. (Current).

Dr. Frisina has authored over 50 papers and published articles on leadership and organizational effectiveness. He is a contributing author to The Borden Institute's highly acclaimed textbook series on military medicine. He also is the author of Influential Leadership – Change Your Behavior, Change Your Organization, Change Health Care (Health Forum, American Hospital Association Press, May 2011) and Leading Yourself to a Higher Level of Performance (Center for Influential Leadership, July 2014).

Dr. Frisina is a Visiting Scholar at The Hastings Center in New York, a Visiting Fellow in Medical Humanities at The Medical College of Pennsylvania, a John C. Maxwell Top 100 Transformational Leaders for 2018 and 2019 and a two time Educational Grant Awardee for the American College of Healthcare Executives. And he serves as Chairman of the Health Administration Advisory Council for the American Public University/American Military University.

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