The Case For Emotions At Work
How many of us have been given the message “don’t take your emotions to work”? Maybe it was indirectly imparted to you though social pressure, or more firmly implanted in you by your family or on your first job. One of my first “real” jobs was in law enforcement, in uniform…no one had to tell me not to be emotional at work, the workplace culture said it all. I empathize with friends, family and clients who have been told through feedback (or in a performance review) that they are “too emotional”; that if they want to be considered for leadership, promotion or accepted “as equals” in a team they are to leave emotions at home.
How do you do that exactly?
No one wants to cry at work, or become so angry you are visibly shaking, so full of shame you cannot look another person in the eye. But it happens, it’s happened to me, it has happened to you…it happens. You cannot leave your emotions at the front door of your house when you leave for work. Over time we all learn how to adjust our behaviours to better manage our emotions so we are less at risk of having them overwhelm us. Truthfully, there is an acceptable range of emotions we know we can exercise at work and elsewhere (smiles, laughter, frowns, expressions of confusion or even surprise to name a few), but they are fairly neutral, they are safe. You may have looked away when another person expressed emotions beyond the socially acceptable thresholds, either embarrassed on his/her behalf or afraid that if you allowed yourself to feel those same emotions in concert with that person they may become contagious. From public displays of affection to lost tempers we generally like our emotions to be “in check”.
Hence the conformity pressure to ensure that when you go to work you are not overtly emotional. Recognizing it is important for everyone to be comfortable, we should not foster “drama” at work, but that is not the only emotional output that is being discouraged, it is any strong emotion that has a chance to make someone uncomfortable. It is also known that not all emotions are created equal - it is a sign of a healthy workplace when you can hear laughter, witness camaraderie and see other displays of social currency happening effortlessly between people. However, crying, anger, visible frustration are much less welcome. Taking a polarized stance on the presence of blatant emotions, particularly at work, is unhealthy and as leaders we need to be aware of what this looks like – often it is made out to be very black and white – you could describe it as polarized. Miriam Webster defines the word polarize as: “to cause (people, opinions, etc.) to separate into opposing groups”. You are in or out; with us or against us. You can either manage your emotions or you can’t. Once painted with the brush of being “emotional” it can be difficult to shake the image, and like many things in life, it sometimes takes only one public instance (of crying, loosing your temper or being visibly upset) to be labeled. Clearly it is not OK to verbally unload on people regularly in meetings, or burst into tears every time your idea is overlooked. But there is an important role for our emotions, both at work and in society, that we should consider giving more credence to.
Emotions are what make us human. They also make us creative, curious, innovative, inquisitive, courageous, thoughtful, vocal…the list goes on. We need all these things to make us good at what we do, at work, at home and in our communities. Without our emotions there would be no volunteers, no commitment to something bigger then ourselves (either an idea, a mission, a product/service or a belief). Some of the best experiences that have ever happened to us as a society were because someone got emotional. One example that comes to mind is Rosa Parks; hers was foremost an emotional response the day she’d had enough and refused to move seats on that bus. She probably did not leave her house that day thinking that was what she was going to do, it happened in a moment, an emotional response to an unconscionable situation. It was probably one of the hardest things she ever did – staying with that initial emotional response, which she knew to be right, despite the fact that likely every fibre of her being was telling her to just move seats. But she didn’t. Her emotional response and courage has allowed our society to become better than it was prior to her momentous act.
What if we took a more open-minded view of emotions at work? What if instead of polarizing the happenstance of being overtly emotional by characterizing it as “bad” we looked at it from the perspective of a duality. Duality is defined as “having two parts, often with opposite meanings, like the duality of good and evil” (Vocabulary.com). There is a role for us to play as leaders to bring duality to emotions and work. The two can happily co-exist, even when emotions are overt, running high or are outside of our comfort zone. If we view these types of emotions as demonstrations of passion, interest, dedication to service and look at them with compassion rather than derision, we build relationships to emotions, and to each other, that are more resilient - leading organizations that are more resilient. There is a large part for us to play as leaders to both model and champion this duality, even when there is discomfort present (for ourselves and others). It is up to us to discern how best to enable duality around emotions, allowing them to become balanced within the context of both work and the needs of those present.
As a society, as employers and as leaders we need to better understand the positive role that a full range of emotions play in our society and workplaces. We are never going to find a way to keep our emotions at home while we go to work. Think carefully before using the label “emotional”; we should not see this as a negative trait that prevents someone from being taken seriously, promoted or respected. Practicing duality allows us to rise above narrow points of view, to explore, be curious and make room for a deeper and wider range of expression and discussion, enabling balanced use of emotions at work, or wherever we choose to go in life.
P. S. We are seeing more acceptance of the presence of emotions at work in society (you know something is going mainstream when it shows up in media) as this great example from Tangerine demonstrates: http://www.marketingmag.ca/brands/tangerine-works-the-emotive-angle-166343.
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