We’re Human. And Therefore Emotional.

As humans we are by nature, emotional beings. We react to funny commercials with dancing cats, an Olympian’s latest triumph, the US Presidential election. But did you know that emotion is what enables us to learn, to remember, to change behavior?

It all starts with our brain’s limbic system, which is primarily responsible for our emotional life, and has a lot to do with the formation of memories (Boeree, 2009). The amygdala and hippocampus make up part of the limbic system and are largely responsible for the formation and storage of memories triggered by emotional events and with long-term memory, respectively. These two regions of the brain work together during emotional situations by first processing the emotion and then forming the memory. Although each are independent of one another, they act in concert when emotion meets memory (Phelps, 2004).

An event that leads to emotional arousal is when we experience what is called an insight, defined as that eureka or “A-ha!” moment when the unconscious mind solves a problem. It is precisely these moments that trigger the amygdala. The emotional charge of an insight seems to be an important part of the mechanism by which memories stick (Davis, Balda, Rock, McGinniss, & Davachi, 2014). Most of us would agree that it is quite rewarding when that “A-ha!” moment takes place – whether it is during our morning jog, while having a conversation with a colleague, or on our commute into the office. It is rewarding, and a rewarding experience is a positive one – which in turn causes the experience to be more emotional, more memorable, and more likely to lead to other insights.

In Jonah Berger’s book Contagious, he describes why ideas and products go viral. One of the key reasons is, you guessed it – emotion. He describes humans as social animals who share emotions because it helps us connect with one another. Google’s “Parisian Love” campaign went from a simple ad to viral hit and Susan Boyle’s performance on Britain’s Got Talent had 100 million YouTube views in just nine days because each triggered emotion, which motivated viewers to share the content with others. Berger provides a number of other examples in his chapter on emotion, but in short – positive, high arousal emotion drives people to action – whether it is to share, to talk, to learn, to do, or in the specific case of consumer products as continuously outlined in the book, to buy (Berger 2013).

As an Organizational Change Management practitioner, one of the fundamental rules of OCM 101 is that for an individual to openly embrace a change, no matter how big or small, you have to help guide their individual and personal behaviors, thoughts and beliefs. Simply put, if you want someone to do something, facilitate a way for them to come to that conclusion on their own. If you can then encourage that individual to actively champion others to also change, then the change will very likely stick. Given what we know about the correlation between emotion and how it triggers parts of our limbic system, below are some considerations on how to apply this when leading and driving change:

Show Some Love

One of the most effective ways to create a positive emotional state and reduce any perceived threats is to show empathy. Get to know the individual on a personal basis. Ask the person about his or her family. Where did they grow up and go to school? Any life events recently take place? Did they have to recently take on the responsibility of caring for an aging parent? On a professional level, understand what they are trying to get out of the current state of their career. Was the person forced into the role? Is there a desire for a promotion? What motivates them? How does this person believe he/she is perceived by others in the organization?

I once worked with someone who kept detailed notes of everyone she worked and consulted with. Wedding dates, names and ages of children, hometown, favorite foods. And each time she knew she would be meeting with one of these individuals, she referred back to her notes – even if it had been years since the previous interaction. Kicking off a conversation with “How is Johnny doing? He’s starting 5th grade this year isn’t he?” goes a very long way. Personally, I’ve observed a physical change in body language and experienced better working relationships by showing empathy. Doing so not only allows you to better understand someone’s personal motivations and to better cater any behavioral change activities for this particular individual, it also triggers a positive emotional response for the recipient by letting them know they matter and that you care.

Ask, Don’t Tell

People typically respond much better and are more likely to carry out an activity or recommendation when they are given the opportunity to discover a solution on their own – in other words, an insight. Being told what to do or being handed the solution is not nearly as rewarding and as result, does not allow the individual to feel ownership or motivation to take action. Instead, facilitate the conversation by asking the person questions (even if you already know the answer) – guide the questions and discussion so the individual develops an insight and comes up with a recommended solution on their own (and many times, you may find it is not far off from the solution you already had in mind). Asking a simple question like “How would YOU handle this situation?” or “What do you think next steps should be to address the issue?” will help guide the conversation. The positive, high arousal emotion resulting from an insight will be memorable and likely discourage the individual from reverting back to old behavior – thus making the change stick.

The overall process of asking instead of telling may take longer than simply having a direct conversation about what the answer is. In the end, however you will likely have succeeded at developing this individual into someone who is not only bought into the change, but who is ready for the entire change journey. This person may even feel accountable for the success of the change and actions taking place by taking on a role cheerleading others to do the same.

Make It Matter

Humans typically don’t like change. In fact, we fear it because of the unknown impacts and because we are being asked to give up something we are comfortable with – the old. To encourage someone to embrace change, we need to make it matter by triggering a positive emotion. Doing so not only impacts us at the neural level because it activates our limbic system, but we want to be able to share the experience with others in the hopes that it will trigger a positive emotion for them as well. These individuals essentially become your Change Agents.

Identifying what will trigger a positive emotion (and a high arousal one, at that) is not always going to be easy. In fact, change frequently evokes negative emotion. The change may be as small as moving a group of employees from a manual spreadsheet to an automated tool. Or, it can be as disruptive as being acquired by a new company and reporting to a new boss in a new organizational structure with a new role or title. In both cases, perform an assessment and identify the benefits resulting from the change (no matter how seemingly insignificant it may seem) – and determine how it is a positive impact for a specific individual or group, based on what you know of them both personally and professionally. If done effectively, the change itself can successfully cascade throughout the organization.

We are emotional beings – on both the neural and social level. We crave reward. We want to feel good, and we want others to feel good as well. If we can help influence factors in the environment that result in a generation of positive emotion, then we can lead others to more effectively learn, remember, develop, and take action to change. We are afterall, only human.



Boeree, G. (2009). The Emotional Nervous System. General Psychology.

Davis, J., Balda, M., Rock, D., McGinniss, P., Davachi, L. (2014). The Schienc of Making Learning Stick: An update to the AGES Model. NeuroLeadership Journal, 5, 8-9.

Phelps, E. (2004). Human emotion and memory: interactions of the amygdala and hippocampal complex. Science Direct, 198-202.

Berger, J. (2013). Contagious. 


Image Source: sharpbrains.com