5 reasons why emotions matter at work
Over a decade ago, when I first started my career in management consulting in New York City, I was consistently told that there was no room for emotions in business. That concept always confused me as I experienced and witnessed a LOT of emotions at work. More importantly, that sentiment was completely FALSE as we are emotional beings, and ALL of our decisions are based on emotions (whether we acknowledge that or not). Even if you are a self-identified data cruncher and lover, you are ultimately an emotional being. And acknowledging and expressing our own emotions are a key ingredient to how we express empathy – the ability to feel with others.
The research is clear – empathetic workplaces are key to organisational success, and it all starts with making room for emotions. Even if you remain a sceptic, consider these 5 reasons for why emotions matter at work:
- Emotions are a source of data – employees’ emotional responses serve as powerful data and intelligence as to what is happening in the system. Inquiring into how people feel about something helps leaders to uncover dissonance or disruption in the system and use this data to productively shape what responses or actions they should take next.
- Our future of work depends on our ability to express emotions. Emotions make us uniquely human and are our key differentiators from robots. Honouring and leveraging emotions at work make us able to do things that robots can’t – such as innovate, creatively think and problem solve, and make intuitive/non-linear connections. Emotional expression is the key to humans staying relevant in the workplace.
- Emotional expression is a major driver to creativity. This can be easily seen in art, music, writing…so why not the workplace?
- Emotions have the power to transform. No amount of cognitive data can compete with how the heart feels about something. Think about your own experience – when were you touched by something or someone? How did you feel? And did you remember the data or the facts surrounding the situation, or simply the feeling
- Emotions can be a powerful source of feedback to ourselves and others to guide if or how we are living to our values and purpose. When we are in emotional turmoil, this can often be an invitation for us to re-visit our purpose and values and re-find alignment in how we are showing up in the workplace or even in our lives. Often, when we re-find that alignment, the actions we need to take become much more clear.
So if emotions are an important component of the workplace, why isn’t there a lot of space for them at work?
- Emotions are seen as “bad”. The majority of us were taught that strong emotions are bad and therefore unconsciously or consciously suppressed our emotions, especially the “negative” ones such as fear, sadness, anger, and grief; we then handed down these mindsets to our children and so the cycle continues.
- Emotions are unpredictable. Emotions are messy and cannot be controlled. Most leaders I speak with are worried about having courageous conversations at work because they cannot predict or control the receiver’s emotional response. And humans hate unpredictability.
- Most of us never learned the skills and language of emotion. Instead, we were taught maths and science in schools rather than emotional intelligence, making it much harder to learn these skills as adults. But like any skill, it can be learned with practice and self-compassion (translation: it may feel clumsy and you might make mistakes, and that is part of the learning process!)
So what can you do to make more space for emotions at work as a leader?
Start with checking in with yourself. Scan your body and see if you are holding onto tension somewhere. Try naming the emotion that might be sitting with that bodily tension.
When we are disconnected from how we are feeling, we tend to project our emotions onto other people. This makes us more easily irritable and in a blame-mindset. Reach out to us if you’d like some worksheets and resources that help build emotional language. The Center for Nonviolent Communication is a great place to start building emotional literacy.
Ask others how they are feeling. We tend to over-intellectualise tension or conflict in an effort to rush to fix it. Instead of going into explaining and rationalising, try asking how someone is feeling when you sense things are not ok. And when you ask, pause and give them plenty of space and silence to respond (no matter how awkward you might feel with the silence). This way, you are helping them build their emotional capacity (their ability to be with their emotions) and emotional language (their ability to name how they are feeling).
As the world becomes more unpredictable, our ability to be human is what will help us navigate complexity. We, at Humans Who Lead, believe that emotional literacy and expression is the key to helping people change and adapt towards the future – and to becoming the fullest human version of ourselves in and outside of the workplace.