Why Emotions Belong in the Workplace

Emotion. It's a critical business component that's often overlooked or avoided altogether, yet it's actually the driving force behind all other aspects of business including productivity, revenue, and innovation. And it's time for leaders to embrace it.

I was recently discussing a project with Tom, our EVP of Learning. After our initial conversation, he asked me, "How are you?"

"I'm fine," I responded.

He continued to probe. "How are you feeling?"

"About the project?" I asked.

"No," he said. "How are you?"

Oh, I thought. That's a different answer. I realized right then and there that I wasn't feeling so great emotionally. I was exhausted and overwhelmed. I consider myself a pretty self-aware person, yet to suddenly turn the dial from discussing the project to checking in with my own emotions was an uncomfortable transition.

For anyone who's human, it's common to become so focused on the task at hand that we forget to check in with not only our heads, but our hearts as well. It's in the moments when we pause to notice how we feel and how others feel, and actually share these feelings with each other, that we strengthen our relationships. This is what builds the emotional capital we need for success.

When we listen to our emotions, they help us make better decisions, while also connecting us with why we care about the things we do. Emotion is what keeps our motivation and momentum going when we need energy most. It's when we name and acknowledge our emotions that we understand even more clearly why we don't feel the energy we need—and want.

Breaking Through the Resistance

Discussion about emotion almost always occurs when I teach the Fierce Coach program. The models within the program help people identify and clarify significant issues, then name the impact both now and in the future if nothing changes.

Part of that questioning approach is to ask, "When you consider this impact, what do you feel?" or "When you consider the possibility of nothing changing, what do you feel?"

In the space between the question and the answer, resistance (fear) often shows up:

What if I say something that upsets someone?

What if sharing my personal feelings is an HR violation?

What if their perspective or opinion about me changes after what I share?

When these questions are asked and this kind of pushback occurs, I know that it's merely resistance to what can't be avoided. Emotions are always there, for every single one of us in every moment of every day, whether we acknowledge them or not.

Many of us resist engaging on a more emotional level, both in the workplace and sometimes even at home, for fear of the potential consequences that could occur if we speak our truth.

That resistance and fear comes naturally to us—for a multitude of reasons:

  • Not expressing emotions may have served us in some way in the past, even kept us safe.
  • We hold the belief that only certain emotions are acceptable to feel or express—especially in the workplace.
  • We're afraid of how people will respond if we make these parts of ourselves seen.

Here's the tricky part: your worries could actually come true!

It's possible that the person with whom you share your emotions could reject those aspects of you.

It might not go the way you hope.

But here's what I invite you to consider: If you don't share these aspects of yourself, what's at stake? What do you stand to lose? What do those around you stand to lose? And what does your organization stand to lose when your emotions (and those of others') are not present—or not acknowledged?

There is a lot at stake: Personal integrity. Authenticity. Emotional capital. And ultimately, business results!

Why Conversation Skills Make or Break Emotional Capital

We may resist emotion as a critical component in the workplace because all of us have experiences in which emotions cause a conversation to completely derail. Things may escalate when this happens, and we may not find a resolution. So understandably, introducing emotion into the conversation may not seem like a very good idea.

That's where (and why) communication skills make such a difference. All emotions have a place at the table, but how we express them determines whether the outcome strengthens the relationship and resolves problems or damages the relationship and creates more conflict.

Developing conversation skills increases emotional agility, a term Susan David, Ph.D. and author of "Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive at Work and in Life" defines as "the ability to have a full range of emotions and experiences, including more difficult ones, and still choose to act in ways that are concordant with our values."

In fact, without the feedback and insight we receive from our own emotions, we wouldn't know our values or what matters to us. When we have the tools to express them, emotions become an integral player in our choices, our interactions, and our ability to live lives of integrity and alignment.

The Problem with Resisting Emotion

At Fierce, we recognize that emotions are one of the most important parts of any and every conversation. In fact, we believe emotions are the catalyst for positive change. Without acknowledging them, we risk losing not only our humanity, but also our ability to fully connect with those around us.

When we resist or deny our emotions, we are resisting and denying a part of who we are. This means only the parts of us that we deem "acceptable" are actually present in the conversation.

So why is this a problem?

It prevents us from being real. It becomes impossible to show up authentically with those around us and live—as well as express—our personal truths.

For example, if we only allow the part of us that plays peacemaker to take the lead, we force the part of us that is upset with a colleague to take a back seat and keep quiet. When we brush issues under the rug, we are, in effect, brushing a part of ourselves under the rug. Nothing is resolved, and our peacemaker continues to keep the peace. Meanwhile, the part of us that has the capacity to improve the situation is silenced.

When we deny or silence the part of us that wants to find resolution to an issue, we contribute to a "culture of nice" or one marked with passive aggressive behavior. The decision to resist or deny our feelings (as if they don't exist) causes the issues around us to persist and even escalate. It has a severe impact on both our individual and collective success.

Unless we've connected with—and expressed—both the positive and negative emotions surrounding a potential outcome, we won't see the changes we want to see in others' behavior or our own. And it's our behavior that drives our results.

Let's face it…

Acknowledging an uncomfortable emotion, such as anger, is challenging.

Let alone expressing it to someone with whom we work. But when we develop the skills to say how we feel in a way that produces a positive outcome and adheres to our values, it gets easier and easier to do. Over time, our capacity to effectively use our emotions to drive results increases and we build trust with those around us by "simply" being vulnerable and transparent. Those are conversations worth having!

Even after participating in conversation training, strengthening this skill takes practice. Becoming more aware of our own emotions and expressing them in an effective way is something that most of us will hone and develop over the course of our life.

Leaders, it's time to shift the conversation and invite your emotions and the emotions of your team members to the table. Your relationships and your success depend on it. 

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