The article, “The Fear of Feelings at Work” originally published in The Atlantic, highlights why it is important to acknowledge the existence of emotions in the workplace. Now, in 2020, amidst a global pandemic that suddenly and unexpectedly changed our lives and workplaces forever, it is even more critical that we understand the power of our emotions and how they show up at work.
Emotions are often misunderstood and ignored, inspired by two common myths. The first myth is that some people do not have emotions. A perfect example of how this myth shows up was voiced by one of our leadership development training participants, who declared in a session, “My husband is a Marine. He doesn’t have emotions.” The truth is that everyone has emotions, including Marines. The observable difference is in the way we each express our emotions. The second myth is that emotions can be turned off and on like a light switch, and therefore cast aside once work begins. This is simply not true. Emotions are part of each of us and go wherever we go. You are always under the influence of your emotions whether at home or at work, and the myth is even less accurate now since, for many employees, their homes are also their place of work.
Susan David, Harvard psychologist and author of Emotional Agility, suggests that workplaces often require the suppression of emotions with harmful results. Suppression is a form of emotional labor, or the act of regulating and managing the expression of emotions to comply with organizational or social norms. Some examples are an employee working in customer service who displays a happy persona even when they feel annoyed or disrespected by a customer. Or an employee who goes along with a decision to show support for their team even though the decision makes them personally uncomfortable. Emotional labor creates dissonance between employees’ feelings and behavior. They feel one way yet act another. Over time, this dissonance can create a psychological toll, leaving employees burned out, and possibly lead to more severe effects, like depression.
As we all find ourselves traversing a new reality brought on by COVID-19, it is important to recognize that employees are now performing even more emotional labor than before. Employees might be showing up to a virtual meeting with a smile while simultaneously experiencing a mix of uncertainty about their job security and financial stability, concern for the health and safety of themselves and others, awkwardness and disorientation as they attempt to adapt to new technology and ways of working, exhaustion by the blurring of work and home life, boredom from the lack of stimulating activity, disconnection from friends and family, and pressure to maintain productivity while simultaneously fulfilling their duties as employee, spouse, partner, parent, neighbor, and/or teacher.
Effectively integrating emotions into the workplace is not simply a matter of mitigating risk to personal well-being. Emotions are amazingly useful because they give you critical information about what is important to you. If your manager interrupts you in a meeting and you genuinely do not care, you will not have a strong emotional response. But if you do experience a strong emotional response, then it suggests that the interaction held significant meaning for you. Perhaps your emotional response is a signal that your relationship with your manager is not as strong as you would like it to be.
In her book How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, Lisa Feldman Barrett describes “emotional granularity”, the ability to precisely categorize the range of emotions experienced in any given situation. Being interrupted by your manager during a meeting might make you feel annoyed, but if you dig a little deeper you may also recognize feeling undermined, disrespected, or embarrassed. On the flip side, maybe you do not like being the center of attention and instead feel relieved that your manager shifted attention away from you.
If you can identify your own emotions at a more granular level, you will be presented with more behavioral choices. When your manager cuts you off, you can sulk because you are annoyed, or you can remain silent because you are grateful to no longer be in the spotlight. This expansion of choice is why it is important to encourage employees to explore the complexity of their emotional landscapes. If an employee decides to leave a virtual meeting by announcing that they feel depleted rather than simply leaving the session with no explanation, the team can decide how to best support that employee so they can show up to the next meeting rejuvenated. Otherwise, if the emotion goes unobserved and unexpressed, the team might continue to pile work on without any awareness of the impact of that decision.
Organization and team leaders can expand behavioral choice for their employees by simply providing them an opportunity to name their emotions. A one or two-word check-in asking employees how they feel can be a useful way to start or end a meeting, or test how employees are processing a difficult change or decision. Leaders can, and should, model this by naming and sharing their own emotions. When leaders share their own emotions, it encourages others to do the same, and demonstrates to employees that it is acceptable for them to do so as well.
Another way to encourage employees to share their emotions and show support for their emotional experience is to name the emotions you observe employees expressing. Avoid relying on generalities by saying something like, “You’re all probably going through a lot right now.” Instead say something specific that demonstrates your genuine attempt to understand your employees’ emotional experience, such as, “I can see that everyone is feeling overwhelmed by the workload,” or “I’m sensing that some people are feeling uncomfortable with this decision.” You can take it one step further to demonstrate that you care about your employees by doing something to shift their emotional experience. If they feel overwhelmed by the workload, do something to ease the workload and/or ask how you can provide support. If they feel uncomfortable about a decision, take the time to listen to their concerns and use their feedback to guide future decisions.
In a few short weeks, COVID-19 transformed how work gets done. While we all try to adapt, make sure to create space to explore emotions. Try to identify a wide range of emotions that are showing up in your work and let the discovery of more nuanced emotions create new options for moving forward.