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When ‘bringing your whole self to work’ and ‘taking care of each other’ starts to erode the business

I ended my previous series of blog posts with some reflections on Holding emotional selves in a working team. I mentioned that more and more, in new-ways-of-working, there is the notion and the intention to bring the whole person to work and into the organization. There should be more room for people’s emotional side to show up as is habit in mainstream business practice, but most teams, organisations and networks get stuck when more intense emotions are at play.

Although I wrote it many months ago, the issue of how to deal with intense emotions in a team where there is no boss or coordinator has certainly not lost its importance! In the different networks around self-organisation and self-management that I know or I am part of, like Enspiral, Somas Mas and Percolab, I have heard over time different stories of where emotional charge between team members has taken over the work on the business itself. When team meetings have become zones of conflict and no time is left to deal creatively with the challenges of doing business something is really off.

The concept of adult-to-adult relationships is being used more and more and can be a helpful guide if you want to know how to hold emotions — or emotional charge — in the workplace. It is seen as an essential quality of awareness that people need to have mastered to actually thrive in self-organisation. It is not difficult to envision that with people blossoming also the work and the organization thrives!

We all know too well the work environments where the general atmosphere is really toxic; including bullying, lies, manipulation etc. We now also see work environments where the pendulum has swung too far to the other side: where spending a disproportionate amount of time tending the relationships and taking care of each other starts to erode the business side of the organisation. ‘More communication’ and ‘bringing whole selves into the workplace’ is too many times used as excuse and an opening door to dump personal anger, sadness, disappointment etc. on ‘the other’, be it some colleagues or the boss, or the initiator(s).

What we are looking for here is balancing humanness with working for a purpose (business, NGO etc.). We want to hold the clear intention to invite more humanness in the workplace, but where do we draw the line between ‘enough’ and ‘too much’? What needs to be done? What can be done?

Short answer: to participate fully in, and benefit from, the new self-organisation and self-management work culture asks us to ‘grow up’, as also mentioned in this article. Meaning: we need to develop the way we see the world beyond the ‘traditional’ ways of conforming to roles, responsibilities and expectations — as implied by our cultural norms.

While a ‘traditionalist or ‘socialised’ mindset is adequate to function in ‘normal’ ways, it doesn’t allow the kind of ‘self-authorship’ that might mean dropping any expectation that the boss or ‘the other’ will take responsibililty for my wellbeing, even with work-related issues. This emotional growing up, this self-authoring in well-being, this change in emotional expectations, is part of the new paradigm.

How the confusion builds up…

Because we want to work with respect and openness, because people are constantly experimenting and learning with a need to communicate more and be more explicit about all sorts of things, because we invite our colleagues to bring different sides of themselves to work not just what is traditionally expected, because we are working more closely together than ever before… the distinction of what is traditionally seen as ‘family’ and what is traditionally seen as ‘work’ becomes blurred. Let me explain why this is important.

As teams work more closely together, they also begin to share private matters and emotions and frustrations about what is bothering them, or what they are proud of, or the courageous step they have taken… and the team starts to feel like ‘a family’ or ‘a tribe’. (I actually hear people saying that a lot!) Because of this feeling of belonging (the emotion of belonging actually links to our early childhood), different kind of projections are starting to come up. I hear many founders of new networks or start-ups being upset and totally surprised with the amount of ‘projection’ from colleagues that is coming their way. Traditionally people expect the founders to take the difficult decisions, hold the ultimate responsibility for everyone feeling good; control others in order to… etc. etc. Not surprisingly, leaders wanting to operate in this new way, many times have to deal with ‘rotten tomatoes’ being thrown at them, as people haven’t shed the traditional expectations.

The word ‘projection’ is a term used in psychology. This concept is well known in therapy-land and is a dynamic between client and therapist that the therapist is consciously working with. It means: one person / the client projects a need, anger, a hope, a fear, … on to the other person / the therapist (who has real or alleged authority). To operate in a self-organised way it is important to understand that some of these emotions originated somewhere in childhood, mostly in relations with our parents. (I’m leaving out here projections between groups, between cultures etc.) The emotions are here and now ‘triggered’ into expression in relation with this other person; they are not ‘caused’ by this other person.

Parent-child relationships are full of these projections. This dynamic shows up all the time, not just in toxic (abusive or manipulative) relationships, but our everyday romantic, personal and working relationships are full of them. Whenever we, as grown-ups, expect that some other adult is responsible for our happiness or our well-being — in whatever way! — we have stepped into a child position and made this other person into a parent, at least for the time being. We step out of this dynamic by developing an emotional mature stance, by training our awareness to distinguish where our actions and responses are coming from.

The concepts of child, parent and adult, as roles we all take in our relationships, stems from the work of Eric Berne. The central point of his work was to balance these different parts in ourselves, keeping the positive cores of each element and let them each play their role in our adult lives. From this point of view, just being ‘the adult’, the reflective, objective part, is not what a full human being is about! We also need good nurturing skills (parent) and also the qualities of the playful child with its unlimited creativity.

Back to work environments, we need to learn when we are stuck in parent-child relationships and develop this adult, reflective stance to be able to notice what role we are in. Building this reflective muscle in ourselves and in our teams is a journey, sometimes time consuming, but we are in real need of it. To do great co-creative and innovative work together we need this fertile soil of emotional mature relationships where we don’t lose time with conflicts, frustrations, not saying what is true for us etc. This is especially important as we are talking here about relationships and humanness in work and business context — and not therapy or group counseling.

Simple practice

As we are embarking on this journey of bringing our whole selves to work, it is good to remember, that collectively and globally, we are just starting to learn to recognise our own projections!
The practice is ‘simple’: only 3 steps. Once our mindset is set on it, it is pretty straightforward, but ingrained patterns don’t change easily.

- First there is the awareness of what is going on: I recognise that there is a feeling in me, that is ‘caused’ or ‘triggered’ by my boss, or colleague or …? This awareness we pick up in our bodies and/or our emotions, hence the importance to develop a practice of body awareness.

- Next is to take ownership of the emotion: “This is my emotion. It is alive in me.” — regardless of who ‘caused’ it or ‘triggered’ it. Because it is located in me I can work with it further.

- Third step is to come back to your center and grounding. This makes it possible to look with clearer eyes of what is really going on. Maybe turn the feeling of frustration into a constructive proposal, maybe see clearly that you have to take steps to leave the situation...

If you want to dive deeper into this topic, here is a section (part of whole book) explaining more about adult development — I rather name it emotional maturity — in general. It goes into detail how ‘taking back projections’ means that more of me that lived in ‘my own shadow’ is now revealed to me. Then, the need to integrate more (shadow) elements into my own identity becomes crystal clear, but it is still difficult to do. Finally this integration leads to your true gift. Follow this link to understand more.

“As soon as enough people in contemporary societies progress beyond adolescence, the entire consumer-driven economy and egocentric lifestyle will implode. The adolescent society is actually quite unstable due to its incongruence with the primary patterns of living systems. The industrial growth society is simply incompatible with collective human maturity. No true adult wants to be a consumer, worker bee, or tycoon, or a soldier in an imperial war, and none would go through these motions if there were other options at hand. The enlivened soul and wild nature are deadly to industrial growth economies — and vice versa.”
- Bill Plotkin

Much of this blog post has come to clarity through many conversations, especially with Lisa Gill, Susan Basterfield, Samantha Slade and Simon Grant. Thanks!
Next I will dive into the topic of giving feedback, hopefully give clarity in some distinctions, as a lot of confusion is present around this.

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