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Why You Should Be Emotional at Work

Business carries a tacit, maybe even explicit, rule that emotions and emotional expression are not okay. People who “get emotional” are seen as weak, defective, or unprofessional. Emotions are inefficient and will take you off course from your work. Basically, feelings are bad, and people that express them are dismissed.

In spite of our discomfort with emotional expression in ourselves or others, our emotions are a key linkage to our ME.

Emotional energy can be hard to bear. A coworker who breaks down in tears at the conference room table or a boss who vents his anger can cause shock and discomfort. But we believe emotions are the key that accesses intuition and creativity. Emotions help us create better connections and relationships.

The problem is most people haven’t been trained to work with emotions—their own or other people’s. Do you relate? If so, maybe you tend to suppress or repress how you feel, or maybe you ignore or shut down others’ emotional reactions. When you stifle feelings, you limit access to valuable energy and information that could guide you to better decision making, creativity, and connection.

Actually, it makes perfect sense that people “get emotional” at work as they bump into obstacles and challenges to move a project forward. When smart, passionate people rally around an inspiring goal, their emotional energy can move the project forward. You want their passion (emotions), you want their inspiration (emotions), and yes, you want their smarts (different opinions).

People tend to be okay with positive emotions but not okay with negative ones like sadness and anger. I, CrisMarie, am no exception. I’ve had to learn to welcome my own messy emotions.

CrisMarie’s Emotional Outburst

Several years ago, Susan and I led a monthly CEO group that had been through many years of ups and downs together. When a team member shared about loss of a sibling when he was a young teen, immense sadness welled up in me.

I tried hard to swallow it down, because I was embarrassed by my emotions in front of this group of mostly male leaders. I did not want to look weak by—heaven forbid—crying. But the energy in my body wouldn’t obey, and I started to cry.

Not a soft, inconspicuous cry. I was loud, snotty, messy, sobbing. I was horrified.

I looked up through my tears to see more than one stunned face. Some people looked away uncomfortably; others visibly braced against the onslaught of my emotional outburst. One guy asked with sarcasm: “Wow, do we need to take care of you?”

That stung, but it didn’t take me out. I took a deep breath, gathered myself, and found my words. “No. I’m okay,” I said. “I admit that surprised even me. What you don’t know is that my brother died six months ago.”

Silence filled the room. No more sarcastic comments or awkward shuffling.

I turned to the person who had shared about his sister dying. “I was touched by your story, and my own grief welled up inside of me,” I told him. “Right now, I actually feel much more present and able to move forward.” We carried on with the experience.

After our group dialogue, a healthy discussion ensued. Each person sitting around the table shared how he or she dealt with emotions on their teams.

One CEO had a female VP who reported to him. She was excellent at her job but seemed overly emotionally expressive. That meant lots of tears. He was so uncomfortable with her behavior that he was considering firing her. As a group, we talked about different ways to work with her.

Another CEO shared that in the start-up phase of his business, he had heart palpations. His doctor referred him to Susan as a business coach who suggested he do breath work for ten minutes a day. He hesitantly agreed to do this, but only behind his closed office door. While he breathed, he felt anger, and tears flowed from the pressure and responsibility he held. Within the first week of practicing deep breathing, he noticed a significant difference in his health, and his mental-emotional state allowed the anger and tears to flow. He continues to do breathing exercises to this day.

A third CEO, a woman, spoke about her own struggle to ensure she never cracked. She had learned early in her career that women in tears were doomed to a slow, flat career path. She found herself annoyed by emotionally expressive people, especially women. Paradoxically, she reported that earlier in her life, she was emotionally expressive and creative. Now her expression and creativity were restricted, and she especially missed feeling creative. After others spoke, she said, “Wow, I think my creativity has dimmed because of my restricted emotional expression.”

This vulnerability and open conversation shifted the energy in the room. Though we had to shorten our regular agenda, that session was one of the most mentioned, and also was voted as the most valuable over other topics. It wouldn’t have happened at all had I not been surprised by my own emotional, empathetic resonance.

Out of Control and Into Creativity

We can practically hear you thinking, “OMG! You’re saying everyone should be processing all their emotions in the workplace! No way.”

We agree. If excessive emotion like grief from the loss of a loved one surfaces, whoever is experiencing the emotions may benefit from professional emotional support. This is what CrisMarie did when she realized she was suppressing her grief after the loss of her brother.

However, people tend to be too black and white about the issue of emotions and can err on the side of stoicism. Emotions can make us feel out of control, so it makes sense to want to contain them.

Women especially take the hit for being “weak” or “too emotional”. But more and more research[1] shows that woman leaders are better at building relationships, demonstrating empathy, and as a result, getting better organizational results over all! Empathy is directly tied to our ability to resonate and feel emotion with another. Women do score higher on the “soft” skills, but in a Harvard Business Review study[2] that evaluated more than 7200 people, women scored higher not only in the expected areas, but at every level! They were rated by their peers, bosses, direct reports, and their other associates as better leaders overall. This we believe speaks to the trust and influence that is built through empathetic relational leadership by men and women—our ability to feel and relate to the feelings of others.

Emotions are not a male or female thing. Emotional energy is a source of power all unto its own. Think about it. How often does creativity emerge in a measured, orderly way? More often it is a sense of loss of control that opens a mainline for creativity.

Creating a company culture where it is natural and normal to feel emotions (because it is) will allow you and your team to use this energy. It doesn’t have to be complex or take lots of time.

A culture that is friendly to emotions creates space for you or someone else to share what is going on internally in the moment. It takes only about ninety seconds for someone to recognize their feelings. It takes longer for someone who is trying to avoid, explain, or make their reaction go away.

When someone is visibly upset, their thinking and their attention suffer until they can process their feelings. This is not the time to continue discussing the content. Instead, check out what you as a leader notice.

For example, “Mary it looks like you’re upset about something. We value your input on this discussion, and I think you are preoccupied. I’m curious what is going on for you, and I’m willing to take a couple of minutes to talk about it.”

If the person is not willing to share, don’t push it. If they do want to speak, listen. Reflect back the gist of what you hear, both the content and the emotional tone. This acknowledges and validates them.

For example, “Sounds like you are frustrated that we didn’t go with your original plan, and when Jamie brought up the same idea today, you think he’s getting credit for your great idea. Does that fit?”

Allow the person to clarify whether or not you got their experience right.

Next, empathy helps when someone takes the risk to be honest. You can affirm without necessarily agreeing with the person.

For example, “No wonder you are so upset if you believe everyone thinks this is Jamie’s great idea and not yours.”

Finally, ask, “Is there something you need from me or from us to support you?” or “What can you do to support yourself in this situation?”

We won’t lie, it can take some upfront time. But it saves wasted time and energy because it minimizes gossip, politics, and work delays when people feel comfortable to process their upsets real time.

Feeling emotions doesn’t make you weak. Suppressing emotions doesn’t make you strong. In fact, holding emotional energy inside actually drains mental and physical energy.

Emotional suppression also limits you to a one-dimensional perspective. The connection between mind and body (thinking and feeling) shows that allowing more emotional range and expression enhances quality of life, health, and a person’s happiness. Don’t take our word for it. Check out the vast research in this area. To learn more, read the work of Bennett Wong and Jock McKeen, Health & Happiness, or Dr. Gabor Mate’s When the Body Says No.

Emotional awareness and expression is critical to health and productivity. Feelings add heart and depth to individual experiences and allow access to intuition and creativity.

[1] Bob Sherwin, Why Women Are More Effective Leaders Than Men (Business Insider, January 24, 2014), http://www.businessinsider.com/study-women-are-better-leaders-2014-1

[2] Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, Are Women Better Leaders Than Men (Harvard Business Review: March 15, 2012), https://hbr.org/2012/03/a-study-in-leadership-women-do

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