Are you a recovering humanoid of the tech industry?

Photo by Siyan Ren

A few years back, I changed my career and started building software for a living. Today, I’m interested in team leadership and exploring the potential of using my ‘softer’ coaching and communication skills with my office’s engineering crowd. Recently, I led a series of talks on creating a Culture of Feedback and facilitated a book club on Non-Violent Communication that inspired deeper conversations about emotions. While on the surface my efforts were well received, what became apparent through this experience, and other interactions within the tech community, is a deep-rooted belief that to name or express emotion, our own or another person’s, is to act irrationally and risk negative consequence.

If this is true, and honestly sharing about our feelings makes us appear emotionally unhinged, it’s no wonder that we tend to hide our emotional experience behind the more humanoid mask of inauthentic relating. So I ask you, does meeting the norms of tech culture mean that our professional identities and relationships are becoming more like our logic-driven programs than they are rich with the truth of life?

Even the panelists of a women leaders in tech event seemed reticent to discuss the lost opportunity I am pointing to now. I asked the panelists to share their thoughts on the value of skillfully expressing emotions in the workspace.

Misunderstanding my point, they made stereotypical connections to women being the more emotional gender. They advised women in the audience on the need to control heavy emotions, and to express them privately. Embarrassed, I realized I hadn’t phrased my question clearly enough to provoke consideration of emotions as valuable. Embarrassment turned to regret when I found myself wishing I hadn’t asked the question at all.

Not only did I disagree with the panelists’ implied premise that women are the ‘more emotional’ sex, I had just become an accomplice to encouraging female onlookers to further disown their emotional bodies of experience. I agree that the panelists were picking up on something important related to industry gender inequalities — I have an educational background in feminist theory and believe feminist critiques need to remain central to cultural critiques. I also agree that unskillful emotional outbursts can be disruptive. But, I want to point out that the emotional experience is one we all share, men and women, and one we should start voicing more often.

For me, skillfully sharing emotion is the opposite of behaving irrationally. To be clear, I am not advocating for childlike emotional outbursts at the office. Absolutely not — skillful expression of emotion requires very grownup efforts, attention, intention, and a ton of courage. Yet failure to name and express emotion among colleagues can be a barrier to effective teamwork, improved performance, and career development, to name a few.

The truth is that in a difficult dialogue, both men and women can feel vulnerable to their somatic experience. Problems arise when we fail to identify with the emotional parts of ourselves, and succumb to a kind of personality suffocation in our attempts to be perceived as rational. This leads us to becoming decidedly unemotional, more humanoid than human. Returning to the tech panel for a moment, a more productive and insightful response would have been to invite audience members to consider how to use their emotional experience to connect deeply with colleagues.

When we get in touch with our empathetic capacities and deepest needs, our power to serve ourselves and others becomes more palpable; yes, even in the workplace. Yet how can we help others or hear others’ needs if we can’t even acknowledge and express our own emotions? We have to start giving ourselves and others permission to express themselves vulnerably, without judgement and without the threat of reprimand. Emotions are natural. Emotions are human. And with the caveat that their expression is done skillfully, their expression is necessary and healthy.

Obviously, an expression of anger at work, such as yelling and name calling could be disastrous. “You f&#ing jerk. Shut the hell up!” — this would be much less appropriate than skillfully communicating angry feelings when a coworker repeatedly interrupts: “Excuse me, Bill. When you speak before I’ve finished my sentences, I feel frustrated and angry because I need to be understood. Would you mind waiting until I’ve stopped speaking before adding to what I’ve said?” The latter response can’t be written off as overly emotional, nor can it be ignored — assuming the response’s tone is appropriate and respectful, the interrupting coworker can’t simply dismiss our comments as irrational and misguided. Such a response — with its emotional intelligence — commands attention and respect and reveals a self-aware, unafraid individual taking control of a potentially hurtful and oppressive exchange.

Hello, my name is Paulette and I am a recovering humanoid.

If the value of emotional intelligence is clear, then why don’t we just take the plunge and reveal our emotional selves? Let me put it this way: “Hello, my name is Paulette and I am a recovering humanoid.” We’re so accustomed to hiding our emotions that recovering the ability to be fully emotionally self-expressed is going to take work — patience, practice, and courage. We will all make mistakes while we learn how to share what we’re feeling. And, we need to be able to count on one another, including senior leaders, to appreciate our efforts to more fully experience and express our humanity.

Stanford’s Graduate School of Business scholar Ed Batista is one advocate of increasing our capacity to express ourselves vulnerably. To improve working relationships he argues for “…taking some risks and being more candid about our feelings — both positive and negative — so we learn more about how we respond to others and how others respond to us.”

Perhaps most difficult to ‘get’ when developing emotional intelligence, is that other people are not responsible for our emotions, we are; nor are we responsible for theirs; they are. It seems like a simple concept, right? Intellectually, sure, we get it. But throw in a surge of fear and regret, for instance, and suddenly it’s easy to lose sight of this simple truth. People and interactions act as stimuli to our emotional experience but are never the cause. We may feel upset by an action that a co-worker takes, but our co-worker isn’t the one creating our emotions! If you don’t really understand what this means, try googling ‘emotional responsibility’ to learn more about this foundational step in the lifelong process of emotional maturation.

Too often we read into the intentions of others, or look to hang our discomfort on others’ shoulders because we don’t know how to handle it. At the office, this might cause backlash. Instead of blaming someone for how we feel, we can choose to own our emotion and share about it with the intent to wisely process what’s happening in and around us. By doing so we create opportunity to connect with colleagues in ways we might not have imagined possible.

If we develop our capacity to consciously access and observe our emotions, skillfully name our feelings, and carefully let others see what we are going through, emotional expression — the skillful kind — could be the next innovative move in the field of technology. Let’s unzip the humanoid attire. Underneath lives the gorgeous truth of what it means to be human, which includes being with our emotions. All of us have much to recover, and indeed to gain, from this approach to work and life.