I was scrolling along on social media the other day and this quote hit me deep in my chest:
Pressuring people to be positive turns emotional intelligence into emotional labor. Toxic workplaces police people’s emotions. Healthy workplaces offer freedom of emotional expression. Showing stress or sadness isn’t unprofessional. It’s human.” – Adam Grant
Freedom of emotional expression is deeply tied to three very basic emotional needs at work:
If you don’t have consistent freedom of emotional expression at work, those three basic human needs are not being met.
So how do you show things, like stress and sadness at work, without being labelled as “too sensitive”, “emotional” or “difficult”?
You ask for what you need.
As an example, you may have too much work on your plate, and it’s dawned on you that you can’t get it all done on time. That’s a pretty devastating realization, but a very important one. To “plow on” means 1 of 2 things; you’ll either bend your life into a pretzel to get it all done on deadline (you don’t really need sleep, right?) or you’ll “fail” and miss the deadline (or hit it and fail to meet the quality standards). Do either of those options sound like good career moves to you?
Good, because they aren’t. You’re not a pretzel nor are you a failure.
Devastating realizations at work are painful, and they create stress; stress you are allowed to feel and show AND do something about. Emotions are a GPS system, navigating you to what is most needs your attention. So, use your emotions as insight.
It looks like this. The realization you’re in over your head means having a difficult face-to-face (in person or virtual) conversation with your boss:
No blame, no shame; just simple, straightforward facts that keeps everyone on the same page. Far from the histrionics you picture “being emotional” or “stressed out” to be, this allows you to name how you feel so your wellbeing is taken into account, along with the deadline (news flash: employee wellbeing is a business need, just as you can’t pour from an empty cup, organizations can’t produce with empty seats).
Asking for what you need in a clear assertive way can be hard, but it gets results. Try it and you’ll see anyone with an ounce of common sense will quickly help you figure out how to make this work for the best. They may even thank-you for bringing this to their attention pro-actively.
The key is to be clear and assertive about your needs. Wavering, giving even a hint that you’re OK with the stress of this looming deadline “I think we might have a problem with the X project. I’ve been working a lot on this but it looks like we may still miss the deadline.” and guess what? That’s the door they’ll choose (I hope you like over time).
Being sad at work can be more difficult; I know I’m more likely to be mad at work than sad, but the anger usually comes from disappointment and disappointment is a form of sadness so, peel that onion, it’s always worth it. If you’ve had a big disappointment at work and someone asks you about it, own it:
Again, being clear and assertive about what you’re feeling signals to others you’ve got unmet needs (in this example you need more time); you’re likely to get a show of support from the person who asked you how you were doing (giving you a sense of belonging at work when you need it most). It also keeps drama from impacting your reputation. While it can be difficult to keep drama at bay, it’s worth it and empowers you to speak about your feelings (feelings that may well be in evidence from your body language and facial expression) AND have others respect both you and your needs.
To do less means they may get a completely different picture of you that can impact your basic needs: “How do you think I feel? I worked hard for that promotion, no one deserved it more than me, and then that dumb-ass gives it to some Twinkie whose been working here 5 years less than me! I should quit!” That’s the kind of dramatic outburst that’s understandable, but can have consequences (as the person who asked begins to slowly back away from you – no warm feelings of belonging here). Letting others know you’re sad or disappointed, when they know that’s likely the case, is using your emotions as insight and gets you the support you need.
Your needs are important, to you and your employer, but only one of you knows what they are; you. Exercise your emotional freedom and let others know how you are feeling at work - both the positive feelings and the more distressing ones.
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I believe in empowering others in many tangible ways. When I learn new career strategies or see something that might help others, I share it using my blog and website.