A Quote From Maya Angelou Predicted The Future Of Workplace Leadership

Late poet, Maya Angelou famously observed that “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Her great kernel of truth here is that human beings are far more influenced by feelings than by rational thinking – not at all what most of us have ever believed.

When it comes to motivating employee performance in the workplace, little of Maya Angelou’s wisdom has ever seeped into our leadership practices. We’ve traditionally assumed that workers made up their minds on whether to be loyal, committed and engaged in their jobs, so leaders have intentionally steered clear of their hearts.

But over the course of a long leadership career, my direct experience repeatedly proved this understanding was wrong. Ultimately, I came to this realization:

How I made people feel proved to have the greatest impact on employee decisions to be dedicated, hardworking, and willing to put in discretionary effort to help achieve our goals.

When I intentionally made employees – of every age, education level and job family – feel valued, supported, growing and appreciated, they routinely and instinctively scaled mountains for me. 

Ever since this epiphany, I’ve been calling for a reinvention of workplace leadership. In an era where absurdly low employee engagement and job satisfaction scores prove our traditional methods are failing, I believe the greatest responsibility a manager has today is to ensure employees routinely experience the positive feelings and emotions now known to inspire extraordinary performance. I call this leading from the heart.

Now I’d like to tell you that leaders everywhere have been quick to embrace this new thinking, and immediately trusted it to drive greater productivity. But, as you might have guessed, that’s not what happened. Upon hearing words like “feelings” and “heart,” alarms were triggered. “This could never work in the real world,” is what many managers have instinctively assumed.

But I came from that real world – the sharp-edged financial services industry – and proved at all levels that caring about employees and supporting their emotional needs is the surest way to driving sales, productivity and profit.

Nonetheless, as a realist who fully accepts that some people will always need more convincing than others, I’ve continued to seek more compelling proof. 

To that end, I’ve discovered the work of four extraordinary thought leaders – best selling authors, scientists, researchers and psychologists amongst them. Coming from entirely different disciplines – and working independently – each has made the same remarkable conclusions:

  • Feelings and emotions motivate human behavior
  • Employee engagement is a decision not of the mind, but of the heart.  

In hope that their collective insights will hold great influence over how you go on to lead and manage, here are highlights of their respective research:

ANTONIO DAMASIO: Salk Institute Neurologist & USC Professor. Author Of “Descartes’ Error: Emotion Reason & The Human Brain

In the 300+ years since French philosopher, René Descartes uttered his famous words, “I think therefore I am,” science made little effort to challenge his assertion that the brain is the source of a human’s true being. But in a landmark book, one of the world’s leading neurologists finally proves Descartes was wrong.

Dr. Antonio Damasio tells his readers that neuroscience has always been preoccupied with the cognitive aspects of brain functioning, and gave little if any attention to the study of emotions. To offset this, Damasio’s modern-day research proves emotions play a far greater role in human behavior than we’ve ever imagined; “feelings actually guide and even bias our decision-making.”

Inherent in Descartes’ well-known quote is an assertion that our minds are separate from our bodies. Calling this, “Descartes’ Error,” Damasio says the truth is that mind and body, rationality and emotion, all work together. “Feelings don’t just depend on brain activity,” he writes, “but also on specific systems interacting with a number of body organs including the heart. While the heart doesn’t make our decisions, it has direct influence over them through its contribution of emotional feelings.”

ROBERT WRIGHT: Author Of “Why Buddhism Is True: The Science Of Meditation & Enlightenment”

In his recent New York Times best seller, Princeton University professor and award-winning science writer, Robert Wright, explains some of the foundational ideas of Buddhism, one of which is that “feelings play a bigger role in shaping our perceptions and guiding us through life – bigger than most people realize.”

To remind us how the human species evolved, Wright says that feelings were our original guidance system – long before the brain was built. “Feelings are our original motivators,” he writes. “Good or bad feelings are what natural selection used to goad animals into approaching things or avoiding things, acquiring things or rejecting things. Good feelings were assigned to eating, and bad feelings to being eaten.”

Fast-forward today and we might assume that our highly evolved brains now override our instincts in decision-making. But Wright says this just hasn’t happened. “Over time, bit by bit, animals got smarter, but the point of smarts isn’t to replace feelings, but rather to make our feelings better informed. Feelings tell us what to think about, and then after all the thinking is done, they tell us what to do. Thinking has always had its beginning and ending in feelings.”

DR. ROLLIN MCCRATY: Director of Research, Institute Of HeartMath

For the past 30 years, the Institute of HeartMath has been researching the physiology of optimal human performance – what has to go on inside of a person’s brain, body and nervous system to be able to think clearly, maintain composure and perform to one’s highest potential. According to Rollin McCraty who leads this research, they’ve discovered the heart, “as an organ of perception and intelligence,” is a huge part of the equation.

“We now know that the heart and the brain are in constant communication,” McCraty told me, “and that the heart sends more information to the brain than vice versa. The signals the heart sends affect the brain centers involved in our decision-making, and in our ability to perceive.”

According to McCraty, every heartbeat reflects our current emotional state. So if we’re angry, irritated or frustrated, our hearts beat out a very chaotic message. Conversely, positive emotions create harmony in our nervous systems (what HeartMath calls “coherence”) and the heart rhythm pattern when we’re in our most optimal state.

“It’s irrefutable, says McCraty, “caring leaders set off the neural machinery that produces optimal workplace performance.”

BARBARA FREDRICKSON: Psychology Professor, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; Author Of “Love 2.0” & “Positivity” 

Nearly two decades ago, Dr. Barbara Fredrickson began a formal study of the science of human emotions. And her principal discovery is that positive emotions are the foundation of human motivation.

“Human beings are hardwired to thrive on positive emotions,” Fredrickson told me last year, “in fact, the body’s biochemistry is very negatively affected when they’re not experienced.”

Fredrickson was the first recipient of the American Psychological Association’s Templeton Prize for Positive Psychology. That award may be in recognition of her stunning conclusion that any time human beings experience a positive emotion, (joy, awe, hope, inspiration or hope) what they’re really feeling is love. And feeling love is arguably the greatest human need there is.

“Love transforms people into making them more positive, resilient, persistent, healthier and happier,” she says. “Those are the kind of feelings that drive the commitment and loyalty leaders want. If someone is made to feel uniquely seen, understood, valued and appreciated at work, that will hook them into being committed to their team, leader and organization. This is how positive emotions work.”


All of these thought-leaders come from very different backgrounds and intellectual points of view. Nevertheless, each believes that feelings and emotions determine our engagement in life, what motivates us, and what we care about most. Were Maya Angelou alive today, I’m quite certain she’d urge us all to go out and put this profound knowledge to use.


By Mark C. Crowley

Mark C. Crowley is the author of Lead From The Heart: Transformational Leadership For The 21st Century which has been taught in 11 American universities. He is a global speaker, leadership consultant and thought leader on the topics of workplace culture and employee engagement.