Why our emotions matter in the workplace

Ever walked into a meeting where the vibe can best be described as ‘off’? The meeting proceeds as planned, the agenda is followed and yet something is just not quite right. You walk away feeling out of sorts.

Imagine the impact on you of such a meeting had you heard your colleague in engineering is worried about his son passing his A-levels. That your boss has troubles at home and is distracted, and that your other colleague had a rotten night’s sleep. What was present in the room was a mixture of distraction, worry, pain, and exhausted. Might that have explained the funkiness in the room? Might that have allowed those of you in the room to relax a little and see best intent in others who weren’t fully present?

We like to separate our emotions from work, but our emotions leak out of us.

Without always being aware, we sense and respond to what is being said or what is not being said. We make up stories (“O man, he looks pissed off. My email must have annoyed him”), and project our thoughts and feeling onto others. We take action from that place of interpretation (“I better avoid bringing up the topic in this meeting if he’s that pissed off about it”)

Daniel Goleman describes how our emotions play off each other using the metaphor of emotional wi-fi:

“Mirror neurons are a kind of ‘neural wi-fi’ that monitors what is happening in other people. This system tracks their emotions, what movements they’re making, what they intend and it activates, in our brains, precisely the same brain areas as are active in the other person. This puts us on the same wavelength and it does it automatically, instantaneously and unconsciously.”

As this neuroscience shows, we are wired to connect with each other even when we don’t want to do so. Being aware of and connecting to our own emotions is a requirement of a leader. With that self-awareness of our own inner landscape, we can be intentional about our impact, and moderate against our unintended impact. It’s better to say upfront that I’m irritated from a fractious trip into London, than to leave it unsaid and have colleagues worry they might have upset me.

We should be sharing how we feel at work. This human process is important groundwork to build trust and collaboration in any relationship.

However, emotions and the workplace make for strange companions. There is a belief in the corporate world around not voicing emotions. I’ve heard everything from “My emotions play no role at all in my decision making” to “Emotions don’t belong here [where here is a meeting room or office space]”. These perspectives are born out of experiences where ‘being emotional’ caused harm. It’s only sensible to draw in the bridges around the heart.

My own view is we fall into a trap of collapsing expressing emotions with being emotional. Being emotional in the way people fear is a result of suppressing how we feel — if we are even aware of how we feel. And over time, the emotion leaks out and we hurt people around us. If that’s our expectations of what happens in expressing emotions, no wonder we want to bury them deep.

The perception is that emotions are linked to raised voices, slammed doors, rolling eyes, and mobile phones as projectiles. These are all unskillful expressions of strong emotions that cause pain and harm to those in their path. I’d make the case that these examples are of suppressed emotions finding unskillful ways of being expressed.

Expressing our emotions requires us to be in touch with how we feel, and then taking responsibility for how we express that and the impact it creates.

One small way of doing this is to open each team meeting with a check-in question inviting people to share what’s going on in their minds (where is their attention), and what do they feel. I use this exercise in my individual and team coaching, and once people get over the ‘newness of these questions, they embrace what it brings to their relationships.

There is not doubt that we need to learn the language of emotions. There are fun tools like the Emotions wheel or AtlasofEmotions that help develop the vocabulary. Awareness of our own inner emotional landscape requires a new language, and the pay offs for connection are worth the effort.

As a leader, you are in the business of human relationships and that starts with your understanding your own inner world and emotional landscape is the prerequisite to building strong and vibrant relationships in your world.

If any of this resonates with you, drop me a line and we can continue the conversation — catherine AT belgravestreet DOT com