How to Appeal to Your Employees’ Emotions

See also: Emotional Intelligence

Today’s workplaces place a huge emphasis on data and data analysis. Most leaders won’t make definitive decisions until you “show them the numbers.”

At least, that’s what they tell you.

The reality, despite all those charts and graphs and reports, is that most decisions are still made based on emotions. In fact, without the power of gut instinct, human beings struggle to make definitive decisions. You can make reasoned arguments as a leader, but you have to offer more than logic. You have to learn to appeal to your employees’ emotions.

Emotion vs. Reason

Whether you’re currently a manager or you’ve decided to become a future business leader, you should value the importance of data and logic. Let’s take an example from real life: the fear of flying.

Listening to Reason

Hearing about a big passenger jet crash on television is terrifying. It might make us afraid to fly, so we choose to drive, take a bus, or buy a train ticket instead. We develop an emotional twinge called a somatic marker — i.e., gut instinct — that associates flying with fear.

Statistically, though, driving is far more dangerous than flying, and we’re far more likely to die when using ground transportation. When our gut instinct tells us to skip the plane, it’s just plain wrong.

For important decisions that require deliberation, it’s crucial to rely on objective data and not just gut instinct. If you’re hiring someone new, for example, relying on gut instinct to find the best candidate is a terrible idea. Alternatively, if you need to make a quick assessment, like which version of the new company logo you prefer, your gut instinct helps you make a fast selection.

Leaders know how to balance instinct and data. Employees aren’t always as self-aware.

Appealing to Emotions

Most decisions that your employees make don’t involve a lot of deliberation. When you roll out a new company-wide initiative, they’ll decide within the first 10 seconds of your presentation whether they’re going to support it or not.

If you come across as confident, organized, and certain, then you’ll win their support. On the other hand, if they detect hesitation, poor planning, or hasty decision-making, their gut instincts will tell them it’s a bad idea.

Back in 2011, Antonio Dimasio, head of the neurology department at the University of Ohio College of Medicine, performed experiments on people who’d suffered damage in the part of the brain that controls emotion, called the pre-frontal cortex. He discovered that human beings don’t just use emotions to make decisions; they can’t make choices without them. People who’d lost the ability to have a physical response to emotion — no physical twinge of gut instinct — got stuck in a loop and couldn’t make simple everyday choices.

Your new initiative might look great on paper. In fact, your business case might be attack-proof. But no matter how many charts, reports, and bullet-pointed lists you make, you can’t overcome the power of gut reaction. People desperately need gut instinct. In fact, they’re lost without it. figuring out how to harness and gently manipulate gut instinct will give you the keys to your employees’ emotions.

Grabbing Them by the Gut

Former Harvard School of Business professor John Kotter has a model called “see-feel-change.” Employees have to see and feel the need for change before they’re rationally convinced to make a change.


To make your employees see the need for change, you have to hijack their gut instinct from the moment you make your argument.

Try these tips to get their immediate attention:

  • Offer a symbol. A large brewery that was losing market share discovered that its beer bottles left the factory with sloppy-looking labels, even though the bottles passed multiple rounds of inspections. Leaders shared images of these bottles and turned them into symbols of how the company needed to get better. Finding your own symbol, and spreading it far and wide, makes change real, visceral, and urgent.
  • Say something dramatic. Start with a sentence that makes a grand promise or presents a huge threat. Try something along the lines of, “What if I told you…” and complete the sentence with something attention-getting.
  • Lead with an emotional story. Tell a true story of someone who is suffering because of the way your company is currently doing things, or tell the story of someone who will benefit when your employees decide to change.


Humans naturally interpret new information in a way that confirms our existing beliefs. This psychological phenomenon, called confirmation bias, causes us to look for evidence that matches our gut instincts.

For instance, when you meet a new candidate for a job, you might get a gut impression about each person. Your brain often spends the rest of the interview trying to confirm its first impression.

In a deliberative process like interviewing, confirmation bias is the enemy. When you’re trying to appeal to employee emotions, however, the human weakness toward confirmation bias is your new best friend. If you’ve won their gut instinct in the beginning of your presentation, their minds will spend the rest of the presentation filtering the hard evidence to confirm their initial impressions.

Where your initial appeal made them see the need for change, your data, which appeals to their confirmation bias, makes them feel that it’s right. In other words, once you grabbed them by the gut, your data never looked so good.


Ultimately, your employees will buy into change when they can see themselves doing things a new way, but only as long as they like what they see.

Think about how your employees want to see themselves — as hard-working, virtuous, helpful, adventurous, logical, whatever — and explain how your suggested changes will help them become the people they want to be. If you have executives who want to see themselves as hard-nosed and rational, for example, your meticulous data will convince them. It’s your job to make your audience the heroes of your story.

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People Are Emotional Creatures

As a leader, you’re responsible for weighing the data and choosing the best course for your employees. Getting their buy-in requires more. You have to make them feel it in their gut.

About the Author

Megan Andrews is a freelance writer who is just stepping into the wonderful world of content marketing and SEO. She has a BA in English and experience in many fields, ranging from finance to health (and a few odd ones too). When not creating quality content for quality sites, Megan enjoys reading, photography, and learning new things about the amazing world around her.