How To Use Plutchik’s Emotion Wheel To Enhance Emotional Intelligence

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Emotions are our body’s way of driving us into action as a result of a particular stimulus. But how many emotions can you experience?

Alan Cowen and Dacher Keltner found that there were 27 emotions in their 2017 study. It’s no wonder that it can sometimes be a struggle to figure out how you feel.

Luckily, there are simple ways you can work out what emotions you’re experiencing, which can help you improve your emotional intelligence by learning to recognise your feelings and better navigate your reactions.

One way to do this is by using the Emotion Wheel.

What is the Emotion Wheel?

The Emotion Wheel was created by psychologist Robert Plutchik in the 1980s.

Emotion wheel by Plutchik

Fig. 1. Emotion wheel by Plutchik

The wheel shows eight basic emotions, which are grouped into opposites:

  • Anger and fear
  • Disgust and trust
  • Sadness and joy
  • Surprise and anticipation

These eight emotions can be combined to make more emotions. For example, joy and trust would equal love, while sadness and disgust make remorse.

There are also varying intensities to these emotions. So a strong feeling of trust would be admiration, while a lesser sense of trust would mean acceptance.

The Emotion Wheel is divided by colour, position and layers. Colour is used to identify a particular set of emotions, like turquoise for surprise.

Emotions positioned across from each other in the wheel are also opposites in actuality, like joy and sadness. The space between two basic emotions shows the result of combining those feelings, like trust and fear mixing to become submission.

The brighter the colour, the more intense the emotion. The basic emotions are in the middle layer, while the most intense emotions are in the centre layer of the wheel.

How do these emotions impact our behaviour?

Plutchik identified the primal behaviours set off by our emotions as:

  • Collaboration: trust = sharing with others
  • Protection: fear and terror = retreat
  • Orientation: surprise = learning and reacting to the unfamiliar
  • Reintegration: sadness = letting go of things
  • Rejection: disgust = removal of harm
  • Destruction: anger and rage = removing blockers of needs
  • Preparation: Anticipation = meeting our needs
  • Reproduction: joy and pleasure = desire to replicate good things

For example, you may have felt disgusted at hearing a terrible news story, which led you to switch off the TV and subconsciously “reject” the programme. Or you may have had a particularly productive meeting, which drives you to replicate it with other teams.

Now you know what the Emotion Wheel is and how your feelings can influence your behaviour, let’s take a look at how understanding all this can help you in the workplace.

How can the Emotion Wheel be applied in the workplace?

Understanding how you feel can help you regulate how you react, which can be a huge benefit at work.

Feeling angry about someone else taking credit for your work? Using the Emotion Wheel can help you understand the deeper aspects of this emotion, like mistrust and frustration. Understanding exactly how you feel, rather than just the basics, can help you communicate better and increase your emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence has five stages – self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills. Understanding your emotions plays a part in mastering all of these stages – and, in turn, improving your emotional intelligence:

  • Self-awareness: You can use the Emotion Wheel to make yourself aware of what you’re feeling.
  • Self-regulation: Now you understand how you feel, you can control how you react.
  • Motivation: The Emotion Wheel can also help you work out what motivates you, as you can attribute certain activities to positive emotions.
  • Empathy: Having a solid grasp of your feelings will help you relate better to others.
  • Social skills: The Emotion Wheel can be a useful tool to talk about feelings, which should help you communicate with your colleagues.

*For example, your team has a big deadline coming up, and you’re fearful you won’t be able to complete your work in time. You use the Emotion Wheel to determine that what you’re actually feeling is overwhelmed (self-awareness).

With this understanding, you are able to calmly discuss your concerns with your team (self-regulation).

A few other members of the team indicate that they’re worried about the deadline, and express that they’re anxious about the scope of the project too, which you can also relate to (empathy).

Between you, you work out a solution (social skills) and re-distribute a few tasks to colleagues that are enthusiastic to help (motivation).

What are the benefits of the Emotion Wheel and of improved emotional intelligence?

Improving your emotional intelligence using the Emotion Wheel will help you build stronger relationships with your co-workers, increase trust and encourage collaboration.

Other advantages of using the Emotion Wheel and the benefits of boosting your emotional intelligence include:

#1. Communication

Using the Emotion Wheel can help you communicate how you feel and better regulate how you react to both your own and others emotions. And as we’ve seen, communication is a key skill when it comes to emotional intelligence.

#2. Comprehension

Being able to pinpoint how you feel can mean you’re well equipped to deal with change and constructive feedback.

#3. Morale

Identifying your emotions means you’ll be able to more easily identify what brings you joy, which can lead to an increase in morale.

#4. Productivity

Similarly, you might find you become more productive once you start using the Emotion Wheel as you’ll be able to spot which tasks you favour versus areas you struggle with.

#5. Relationships and conflict resolution

If you can understand and regulate your feelings you’ll be less likely to handle conflict badly, which can be a particularly valuable skill in the workplace.

How can you apply emotional intelligence to resolve conflict in the workplace?

The main thing to resolving conflict in the workplace is understanding. Using a method like the Emotion Wheel can help those involved in the conflict understand how they feel and improve your emotional intelligence at the same time. This will mean those involved will be better able to explain themselves and even relate to each other’s emotions.

Say you and your teammates are disagreeing over which candidate to award a job to. The first step to resolving the conflict is creating an environment where each person feels able to talk calmly through their points. The Emotion Wheel might come in handy here, as you can use it to identify how you both feel and can then explore why.

It’s important to remain respectful and control your emotions to avoid escalating the situation. Once you’ve both had the opportunity to be heard, you should have a better understanding of possible solutions.

In our example, you agree that you both don’t have enough information about how well the candidates would gel with your team, so you decide on an additional informal interview to solidify a choice.

Sometimes, clear and open communication might be all that’s needed to sort the conflict, but it’s important to remember that some conflict is good for creativity and problem solving. If you’re struggling to reach a resolution after discussing it between yourselves, you can always reach out to your manager for help.

Resources on the emotion wheel and how to improve emotional intelligence

Picture of Andrew Wallbridge
Andrew Wallbridge
Andrew is TSW's Head of Leadership & Management. He’s coached and mentored leaders and the senior management teams at international brands.
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