Emotion Is the Dark Matter of Office Culture

In the world of astrophysics, dark matter is a hypothetical concept. It’s not something we’ve observed, and scientists don’t know exactly what it is. They only speculate it exists because without it, the behavior of stars, planets and galaxies can’t be explained. Something invisible has an enormous impact on how everything takes shape.

Why am I talking about space?

Because all over the business world, strategies don’t play out as they should, and we treat the cause of the breakdowns like dark matter—like a mystery beyond our power to see. A major theme that emerged from the last season of our podcast, Let Go & Lead, is that in the world of business, emotions affect everything, and there’s immense opportunity for those willing to address them.

Wendy Short Bartie, Chief of Staff and Senior Vice President at Bristol Myers Squibb, talked to me about the need for leaders to let go of fear. Jeppe Hansgaard, CEO of Innovisor, stressed the importance of trust and human connection. Jeremy Dean, creator of the Emotional Culture Deck, emphasized that feelings should not be so taboo in offices. Marshall Goldsmith, the world’s most celebrated leadership coach, shared that the best leaders he’s seen are firm but also remarkably positive and kind. And in our finale, Sylvia Burwell, the former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services and first woman to serve as president of American University, explored how curbing her own emotions has been critical to her success as a leader.

I founded Gagen MacDonald to help businesses navigate the human struggle of change. After 25 years, truths like the ones above remain absolutely core to what we do.

And here’s the good news: the space metaphor has its limits. Unlike dark matter, emotions aren’t invisible by nature, and leaders can choose to shine more light on them in the workplace. Doing so is not easy, of course. It involves a lot of listening, and it requires that people feel truly safe to share.

But the power of acknowledging and addressing what we feel should never be underestimated. It’s as true for organizations as it is for individuals.

Today, I challenge all leaders to wade with clear-eyed curiosity into the murky waters of emotion in their organizations. The more you take it out of the darkness, the more I think the mysterious laws and behaviors of this world start to make sense.