Fear, pride & hope

Our primal emotions are compelling forces of influence across cultural divides.

In a time of deep division, we all need to dig deeper into our hearts and souls for the courage to put ourselves outside our psychological comfort zones and work to bridge our cultural divides. 

 It is not something that most business leaders are particularly comfortable with. Yet our emotions greatly influence how we act – especially in situations where we are being asked to make a significant, difficult change. 

The primal emotions of fear, hope and pride are prominent in business. They play especially important roles because they impact our identity. And in the increasingly divided, polarized world we live in, anything affecting our identity becomes a powerful chasm – or bridge, depending on whether the influencer can tap into and channel the primal emotions for positive outcomes.   

Building bridges

Even in seemingly normal business situations, emotionally fraught cultural divides can require bridging. Yet too often, the underlying emotions and cultural identities go unacknowledged, or can even be violated – especially when we are emotionally triggered.  

 Think of a young leader given 12 months to turn around an automobile plant that is about to be shut down by corporate HQ, where defeated workers are full of fear and anger. Or a successful mother who vehemently opposes a daughter’s desire to pursue a creative path, worried that her daughter could potentially fail. Or of a passionate founder in his 50s, who is shocked by Gen Z workers who want more pay and more flexible working hours, negating his definition of working hard and taking pride in one’s work. Each scenario can be laden with emotion.

 Culture divides are hard to tackle because we all have our psychological comfort zones. Behaviors or values outside that comfort zone are unfamiliar and can therefore be destabilizing, triggering strong reactions. Beyond visible differences, such as ethnicity, skin color, and gender, equally challenging divides occur across value lines – rich versus poor, union versus management, long-tenured versus newer employees, young versus old – and they pervade every human organized activity, especially when the stakes are high. “Us” and “them” is a natural reaction, especially in the case of a power gap, which makes it doubly hard to understand “them.”   

 At times, such barriers are accentuated by misunderstandings, deep hurts from past conflict, distance (physical and otherwise), and self-oriented use of power. We don’t untie these knots by addressing them directly. Instead, we must go ‘underneath’ them by tapping into the primal emotions that unify all humanity – fear, pride and hope – and that are linked to our wish to better lives (our own and others’).

When we recognize and acknowledge primal emotions in others and show them our genuine respect, we build a meaningful connection. Harnessing this sense of shared humanity raises empathy, compassion, and the possibility of outcomes that benefit everyone. The hard step is having the will to build a connection with people from a culture different from our own. 

 Primal emotions affect our deeper sense of who we are and our attitude toward others. They act as a base upon which other emotions rise and fall more transitorily. Because of their more foundational nature – much like colored glasses –
they affect our fundamental attitude towards tasks that may be especially difficult and that we don’t want to do, or that we sense are risky or hard. How we manage our fears, whether we take pride in what we do and who we are, and whether we have a hopeful orientation, all make a difference to whether we take on tough tasks and persevere.  

Influencing across divides

Having had to influence people across cultural divides throughout our careers, including in highly adversarial, conflict-ridden situations spanning from shop floors to board rooms, we’ve found the following to be helpful in influencing people across cultural divides.

1 Tap into primal emotions to encourage others to see a different course of action
In the scenario of an automobile plant turnaround, the young leader’s most promising course of action is to remind the workers of their past pride in assembling sought-after cars. Restoring their pride in working for the plant could convert their fear to hope and action. 

2 Recognize how primal emotions affect you, and others’ thoughts and feelings
In the case of maternal anxiety over a child’s career choices, the mother must reestablish control over her natural fears, which perhaps arise from conventional wisdom or past trauma. She can do so by recognizing the hope and pride that underlie her daughter’s desire to pursue an unconventional path.    

3 Consider how others relate to your own primal emotions

Logic alone is rarely sufficient to persuade others. For example, in one consulting assignment with a company in decline, one of us shared with the workers how on one previous assignment we had been unable to save a business from shutting down. That firm’s collapse resulted in some of its workers committing suicide. Sharing the intense feelings generated by that experience helped many differences melt away, and enabled the building of a bond that withstood months of difficult collaboration. 

4 Master your primal emotions

Understanding people on the other side of a culture divide isn’t possible until you’ve controlled your own primal emotions. In the scenario concerning generational differences in attitudes toward work, the founder must recognize his own sense of pride in his work, something he grew up with, in order to respect that younger generations value a work-life balance. Only then can he develop innovative staffing solutions to lead his industry. Otherwise, he risks becoming a dinosaur. Different people take pride in different facets of their lives.  

To overcome today’s culture wars and divisions, make it your practice to appreciate the hopes, fears and points of pride in yourself and others. You will see things in a new light. After all, people condemn others when they feel at risk or attacked, but are willing to form a bond when there is a genuine effort to understand. 

Tsun-Yan Hsieh is chairman and lead counselor, and Huijin Kong is principal, of LinHart Group. They are authors of Positive Influence: The First and Last Mile of Leadership.