Emotions at Work
I originally conceived of this as an extremely long thread in the vein of a threadapalooza. It’s tough to give the nuance needed for this topic on social media so I decided to publish a curated form here instead.
A bit of background. I studied psychology, sociology, leadership and organizational development and am a trained executive coach, all of which are directly or indirectly related to this topic. I've been a COO and head of People and am a certified executive coach so I wade in the world of feelings on the daily. Despite this, these are just my opinions, your experiences may vary.
This edition focuses on general emotions and feelings at work rather than mental health issues. While I studied therapeutic methods in my MSW program I'm not a licensed therapist. Mental health issues can impact our work and daily lives and should be taken seriously. If you’re struggling with any sort of mental health concerns please consult a licensed professional.
12 observations about emotions
Emotions and feelings are not the same thing. We commonly use these two words interchangeably. I do too. There is a difference. Emotions are bodily sensations that we aren't always conscious of. Feelings follow when our brain recognizes the changes. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio who has advanced this field talks about it this way: "Feelings are mental experiences of body states." His work has advanced the field, read more of his insights.
All feelings can be useful. Being content isn’t better than being dissatisfied. Feelings are just information. Everyone has them. Be careful not to judge yourself or others for having a certain feeling. What we do with our mental states is more important than the simple fact of having them. Of all them, I find shame the trickest. Shame can make us hate ourselves and others leading to devastating outcomes. Address shame when you recognize it.
We favor some emotions over others. When we say someone is emotional what we often really mean is that tears have leaked through rather than someone who's displayed anger or frustration. Both are emotions. We also tend to define crying as unprofessional more often than anger. We’re harder on people who exhibit some emotions (tears) while allowing others to escape feedback (anger). Emotions are just bodily signals in reaction to a stimulus. We don't always have control over them. Some people are wired to tears, others to anger. One isn’t better than the other, they’re just different.
Stereotypes and bias shape how we see emotions and who gets to express them. The gender, race, sexuality, etc. of the person exhibiting an emotion plays a role in how we view their behavior. The emotional expressions of women, BIPOC and LGBTQIA tend to be more heavily monitored and viewed more harshly. Those with more than one of these intersections feel this more acutely. This means people from these groups spend more effort regulating their behavior. Perceptions on emotions also play a role into who gets promoted. Becoming aware of stereotypes and your opinions about emotions is critical if you manage, lead others or have any sort of position of power.
We need to take care in advising those with different emotional styles. I’m one of those who tears up when I’m sad, mad, glad, confused. It’s just how my body works. I was once told by a person in power I was fragile, unprofessional and I wouldn’t get promoted unless I became more stoic. In hindsight, I’m grateful for that interaction. It helped me see I was in a culture where I couldn’t succeed. While they were trying to be helpful, they were wrong about my emotions being career limiting. I’ve built a career using my ability to connect with others through emotions, eventually becoming a COO where I used these skills daily. Rather than judging others with different styles, find ways to connect. This creates psychological safety which builds stronger relationships and can resolve issues faster.
Be wary of “video always on” policies. Zoom calls are similar to an open office. There's nowhere to hide or have privacy, especially with back-to-back calls. Video on policies often comes from the desire is create psychological safety but having to self monitor all day is emotionally exhausting. Allowing folks to turn off video and be audio only gives people space to have emotions without having to broadcast it to others. I coach leaders audio only. It allows us to focus on the content of the work rather monitoring and regulating our facial reactions. I’ve found audio only gives just as much psychological safety.
Emotions often lie at the heart of control battles. When we seek control there's usually an underlying emotion like fear or uncertainty at work. When you find yourself seeking control and butting heads with others, look at what emotions might be at play. Resolving hidden feelings eases the need for control, collaboration improves.
There’s a difference between venting your emotions and clearing them. Venting often means dumping yucky feelings on others. You feel better, they feel worse. Clearing is about processing those emotions which means really experiencing them. Rather than trying to offload them like in venting, getting the other person to agree with us, clearing means sitting with those uncomfortable sensations. It might feel worse for you in the moment but then you’re able to move on. Clearing is a technique I learned in coaching school. Let me know if you want me to write more about it.
You can experience loss or grief at work. These feelings might arise after a beloved co-worker or boss leaves, you change roles or after a new org structure is introduced. You might also feel loss after a "good" event like getting a promotion. Moving from IC to manager might feel like a win but also changes your relationships with co-workers which can feel like a loss. This is natural. Make space for it. If the feelings turn to grief or they linger, a therapist can help you process them.
Being a leader means wading in people's emotions. Making decisions isn’t just all about data, it can stir up uncomfortable feelings. Managing the emotional stew can be exhausting. Be sure to get emotional support for yourself too. Increasing your ability to manage your emotions will make you a better leader too.
Most leaders feel lonely at some point. Leader loneliness is a problem for the entire team. Lonely leaders are more likely to isolate impacting decision making and collaboration. Finding support through individual coaching, group coaching and peer networks can make a big difference. The emotional and mental well-being of leaders is severely under-funded. Investing in these areas improves their performance and the experience of the team. If you're a CEO or Head of People, double your investment in leadership development.
Emotional generosity is a valuable skill. Emotional generosity looks like staying calm when others are upset, asking thoughtful questions and deeply listening without interrupting. These skills help build relationships and ease collaboration so we can all move towards a goal together. Emotionally generous behavior can even transform your culture. Those who are masterful at emotional generosity have spent years honing it. Recognize this as a distinct skill-set and value it by promoting and paying those who support the team in this way.
There’s much more to say on emotions at work. Tell me what else you want to hear about.
What else to read
Why we cry.
The physiology of anger.
Scientific American on feeling our emotions.
The best thing a manager has done for you (thread).
Written by Suzan Bond, a leadership coach and former COO. Based in Brooklyn. You can find me elsewhere on Twitter and Medium. Comments or questions about leadership or scaling startups? Send me a note.