The Intelligence of the Emotions


imageMartha Nussbaum writes beautifully about the Intelligence of the Emotions in ‘Upheavals of Thought’ (2001). When we take the human unconscious seriously we seek to understand the nature of the emotions and the part they play in human judgment and decision making. Demonizing the emotions ( ) in ‘head-in-sand-safety’ simply creates the most warped judgments and attributions about why things go wrong and why things go right.

But what of other emotions? What part does boredom or loneliness play in why things go wrong? What happens when Safety sounds the trumpet blast of shame and guilt in the workplace for planning, strategy and risk enactment? What part should humility have in leadership in risk? What is the nature of desire and aspiration and why are these not discussed in the context of safety? How does Safety view depression and anxiety and how does such a view mitigate effectiveness in wellness strategies? All these questions are simply not asked in the safety space. It seems the only emotion Safety cares about is passion. As long as one is passionate about safety it seems one can justify any level of unethical behaviour (

If one wants to understand oneself one needs to know that the emotions are predominantly beyond cognitive conscious control and operate in the human unconscious. Indeed, it is often others who are much more aware of our emotional state more than us. This places huge importance on the nature of social engagement, relationships and social psychology as a priority in safety.

I was in a workplace recently and every safety sign on display that was presumed to be good, was laced with assumptions that guilt was motivational. When I asked about the posters I found out that no thought had been considered for:

· The psychology of goals

· The psychology of motivation

· The unconscious and semiotics

· Unconscious messaging

· Consideration of trajectory of language

· Graphic consistency and,

· Congruence with safety strategy

All of these are essential if one wants to put up posters about the workplace or seek to motivate people to safety. Unfortunately, the posters I saw counter intuitively did the opposite. How strange that people who are ‘passionate’ about safety are so ignorant about what motivates safety in the workplace.

The psychology of motivation is bread and butter study for anyone in the field of education and learning. Unfortunately, you will find precious little study of this in any safety curriculum. What often results is naïve and unproductive outcomes in safety strategy. Understanding the emotions of guilt, shame and embarrassment in the workplace ought to be foundational for safety people because these trigger under reporting, deficit strategy and suppress conversation ( ). All ably assisted by punitive BBS and the ideology of zero!

So here we see Safety asking people to speak up (,-speak-up!) and yet undertaking strategies that suppress speaking up, clever! Ah, but let’s not reform the safety curriculum, let’s just pursue strategies of punitive compliance as if somehow by magic things will get better.

imageThe real message one gets from regulators who delight in blitzes in guilt and shame campaigns (; is: don’t speak up, don’t trust and buckets of fear. In most cases fear, guilt and shame don’t work (

If one is seeking to create a workplace where trust, care and helping are foundations to a productive culture in safety then a little intelligence in the emotions would be helpful. Unfortunately, anything that doesn’t fit in the paradigm of safety interest in compliance and control, simply doesn’t make the grade. So, trot out pages of paperwork and the ‘tick and flick’ result demonstrates the emotion of boredom.

As long as Safety doesn’t recognize the importance of the emotions to decision making, nothing will change except increased boredom, lethargy, disinterest, shame, guilt and indifference.

Although Martha Nussbaum is heavy reading, she helps make great sense about the intelligence of the emotions and how in some ways our unconscious self thinks better than we do!

We address these concerns in our One Day workshop MiRISC ( where we learn practical and constructive skills in the psychology of emotions, goals, motivation and making safety campaigns successful.

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long

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Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

3 Replies to “The Intelligence of the Emotions”

  1. Pierre Trudeau’s maxim was “Reason before Passion” and he was referred to by President Richard Nixon as a…….”Pinko commie bastard” for refusing to enter the Vietnam War.

    His response to Nixon was……”I’ve been called worse things by much better people”

  2. Yes, but safety is now claiming Emotional Intelligence (EI) in the typical leader as hero myth. To be a safety leader you need to have emotional intelligence. I feel like instead of embracing all the research on the psychology of emotions, the industry has chosen one aspect that can still make one feel guilty. I better go work on my EI!

    1. The discourse of EI has been captured by the management sector as something that can be ‘used’ for an outcome. Understanding emotions as a utility for strategy completely warps how the unconscious works and simply constructs it as some mechanistic measurable thing or process. So like ‘human factors’ that is not about humans but factors in systems, EI is not about being intelligent in knowing about the emotions.

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