Emotions in the Workplace

Your employees should leave their emotions at home, right?

Wrong.

Sure, emotions can be messy, intrusive, and challenging to deal with.  Few of us enjoy encountering a colleague in tears, or in rage, or in stone-faced depression.  And no question, emotions can hinder our effectiveness at work.

But would you like them to bring their enthusiasm to work?  Their passion?   Their caring?  You can’t invite some emotions but not others.  Might as well tell them to bring a one-sided coin to work.

Emotions are not just “a part of life.”  They’re actually the source of all motivation, and all decision-making. Leave them at home?  Might as well tell them to leave their hearts at home.

How did the cultural norm arise that emotions don’t belong in the workplace, when they’re such an integral thread in the fabric of human experience?  Here’s how:

One day, roughly 400 years ago, science dawned.  Along with it came the rationalistic worldview.  That worldview has alleviated huge amounts of suffering (think smallpox and polio).  That worldview has doubled life spans in the industrialized world.  That worldview has converted the very pinnacle of human imagination into reality.

With such a track record of success, it’s no wonder the scientific worldview has gotten so full of itself.  No wonder that it has come to deny the validity of anything subjective — like emotions, for example.  Eeeew!  They can’t be scientifically observed, measured and controlled, so let’s relegate them to second-class citizenship among human phenomena.  Let’s forget that they’re the source of all motivation, and all decision-making.

If you want productive employees (not to mention satisfied ones, and thus high retention rates), acknowledge and accept your employees’ emotional lives — and yours for that matter.  And encourage them to express their emotions in appropriate ways (before they become out-of-control intense).

How to do so is, of course, quite a complex skill. Easier said than done.  Workshops and coaching in emotional intelligence — notably self-awareness and communication — can help.

YOUR PATH FORWARD:

  • In the next few days, conduct an internal inquiry (i.e. within your own awareness) during your interactions at work.  Try to intuit the emotional state of each person you have a conversation with.  If you’re brave enough (and you think they might be open to it), check it out with them.  “You seem _____________ today.”  The conversation doesn’t have to take long.  The connection you make might do wonders for the quality of your relationship, and ultimately for job satisfaction.   People need to be seen.
  • Assess the state of emotional intelligence in your team.  To what extent are your co-workers:
    • aware of their emotions, and their impact on others?
    • willing to express, and work with, their emotions (to the degree that they impact their work?)
    • encouraged, by the organizational/team culture, to be fully who they are at work?

Given what your teammates might be open to, brainstorm possibilities for enhancing the collective level of “EQ” (emotional intelligence) in your team.

  • For the richest material on this subject that I know, read Primal Leadership, by Daniel Goleman.  This book applies the concepts in Goleman’s groundbreaking Emotional Intelligence to leadership.

About the Author

Steve Motenko
Steve Motenko is an executive coach, leadership trainer, and co-host of The Boss Show, a weekly podcast on workplace dynamics. Steve and his Boss Show co-host, Jim Hessler, are co-authors of Land On Your Feet, Not On Your Face: A Guide to Building Your Leadership Platform. Steve lives on Whidbey Island, Washington, with his wife and dog, whom he loves, and a cat he tolerates usually pretty well.

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