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Deadly sins needn't always be fatal for your career

Can the deadly sins like wrath be channeled into a positive at work?

Story highlights

  • Harnessing the emotions evoked by the seven deadly sins could be beneficial for your career
  • Greed, envy, lust, pride, wrath, sloth and gluttony all have elements that , experts say
  • Becoming consumed by such traits, however, will likely lead to negative outcomes

Greed, envy, pride and wrath: Four of the seven deadly sins and the subtext of many a cautionary tale.

Shakespeare's Iago, Wall Street's Gordon Gecko and even Stan Lee's Incredible Hulk were tortured by these all-consuming traits, pushing each towards the respective extremes of jealousy, avarice and shirt-bursting rage.

But could these dark, often suppressed aspects of the human psyche -- so frequently exhibited on stage and screen -- also offer up clues to the secret of career success?

Some experts believe that if channeled correctly, these volatile and often overpowering feelings can be harnessed to our professional advantage.

There are even those who highlight the remaining sins of lust, sloth and gluttony as natural components of our emotional makeup which, if recognized and controlled, can be utilized as fruitful motivational tools.

Can greed be good?

"There are certain circumstances where the deadly sins can be useful," explained neuroeconomist and professor of economics at Claremont Graduate University, Dr Paul Zak. "Envy can motivate you to work harder because somebody has something you don't. Greed, in a moderate level, can also be good," he added.

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Zak spoke at length on the subject of greed at a 2012 lecture series entitled "Science and the Seven Deadly Sins" at the New York Academy of Sciences. While he is quick to emphasize that it might not always be the most endearing trait in people, there are occasions where such a quality can be beneficial to performance at work.

In moderation, greed can lead people to seek more, drive them on and bring others along with them, he argued. Exercising the same restraints and control with the other deadly sins when we experience them can also be a fruitful motivator, he added.

"Neurologically, it's very interesting as we are constantly balancing self and other. Your brain is (working out) strategies to make you be successful. Sometimes those strategies will lead you to exhibit some of the seven deadly sins," Zak said.

The fruits of wrath

This scientific analysis is echoed by business journalist and author of the book "It's always Personal: Emotion in the New Workplace," Anne Kreamer.

She described how humans long ago evolved emotional responses to cope with what they interpret as external challenges or threats. When people feel threatened or insecure, as they often do in the workplace if going for a promotion or trying to manage a volatile relationship with a co-worker, for example, then they will likely exhibit some of these traits, she said.

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"We are wired to react by the hormones in our body," Kreamer explained. "It might be something as simple as a women sitting behind her desk and a larger male colleague comes in angry about something. Her primitive brain will be going 'this guy's threatening me.' So she gets flooded by the hormones and that creates a sort of stress."

Kreamer points to extreme anger, or wrath, under such strains as a particularly common reaction. While explosions of anger are generally seen as unprofessional and demotivating to staff or fellow employees, these feelings don't always have to manifest themselves in a destructive manner.

"There is good anger," Kreamer said. "Anger on behalf of the underdog or competitive anger. It can motivate performance and it can help us to right wrongs and all sorts of things that are important in our culture and lives. But it has to be directed appropriately."

Pride in the name of progress

The emphasis on directing these emotions in a positive manner as and when they arise is something that Marjie Terry, a psychologist and vice president at the Great on the Job professional consultancy, picks out as particularly important. Doing so is not always easy, however.

Terry describes how the likes of pride, envy, greed and sloth are so deeply stitched into the human character that they will inevitably manifest themselves in the workplace, where we spend much of our time, in one form or another.

See also: How can millennials score the perfect job?

"We all have these less desirable feelings inside of us so figuring out ways to use them for the good is important," Terry said. "It's actually very impressive if you can take wrath for example and transform it into something positive."

"The people who get ahead and who are respected by their clients, senior management and junior team members are people who learn to control these things and spin them into positives. If you don't learn how to control them though you're not going to go very far professionally," she added.

This final point is something that Zak and Kreamer vigorously back up. Both believe that if not checked or controlled, the seven sins can easily lead to self-motivated behavior. While this may provide short-term benefit to an individual, in the long-term it is likely to cause friction between people and engender a lack of trust within companies that are at their most optimal when relationships and motives are transparent.

"These emotions are part of us because they have some adaptive value," Zak said. If you allow them to consume you however "you're going to have a very sad and lonely life. (Overall) it's important to align what's good for you as an individual and what is good for the larger organization."

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