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Why and How to Welcome Emotions in the Workplace

Brian Sherwin January 25, 2018

Just the other day I was ambushed by an emotion at work. I was listening to my colleagues provide feedback on the presentation I was prepping for a client. As I took notes on one colleague’s ideas — wham! — I was triggered by something he said. Suddenly my attention to the content of the meeting dropped to zero as frustration welled up in me. I felt my shoulders and arms tense and my breathing constrict. In a matter of seconds, I went from a fully engaged employee to a human grappling with feelings — disengaged from the work at hand.

Here’s how a simple feeling like frustration becomes a bigger problem: in a typical work environment, where employees are required to repress emotions, I would have to pretend to be engaged in that meeting because it’s the “professional” thing to do. Other meeting participants would likely sense a shift in the emotional tenor of the room, but they would also pretend everything is normal and continue with the work at hand. After the meeting, the unprocessed frustration would linger. I might continue to repress the feeling, which would likely create a sense that being at work doesn’t feel good. Alternatively, I might vent to my co-workers, complaining about a particular person or about the company, which creates a toxic atmosphere, and doesn’t really resolve the emotion.

Unprocessed feelings become bottled-up, zombie emotions that will continue to devour employee engagement, perhaps long into the future.

A New Approach

Luckily for me, my colleagues view emotional development as critically important to the work at hand. When my frustration appeared that day, I took a deep breath and signaled that I was triggered. They immediately paused the meeting and, per our agreed-upon process, asked me if I wanted to check in or step out of the meeting. I chose to check in, so we all brought up our Inside Feedback check-in app (on laptops or phones) and registered our inner states: mental, emotional, and physical. I noticed that in addition to a high level of frustration, I also had a medium level of anxiety and just an edge of sadness.

As fMRI scans show, when we pause and label our emotions — especially challenging emotions like anger and anxiety — we engage our pre-frontal cortex, which helps reduce the impact of these emotions. Indeed, as I completed my check in, I noticed that the knife-edge of my frustration had dulled a bit. We all shared our check-in data anonymously and looked at the results together. I compared my personal check-in to the group’s median results, noting differences. I took another deep breath and noticed how my anger and anxiety were showing up in my body: an anxious knot in my gut and still some clenching in my shoulders and throat from the anger.

As brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor notes in her New York Times Best Sellers–list book My Stroke of Insight,” the duration of even the most intense emotions is typically not more than 90 seconds. My colleagues asked if I wanted to debrief further, and I took a few minutes to talk in general terms about my emotional state. I took a few more deep breaths and noticed that I could bring my attention to the content of the meeting again. Later I would journal about the trigger I had experienced. “I’m back,” I said, and we continued the meeting.

Engagement and Emotions

Let me guess what you’re thinking: “What business has time for this nonsense?”

Well, the whole process I described took less than 15 minutes, and the result was that I was able to recover and quickly be fully engaged again in the task at hand. If you haven’t noticed, disengagement at work is at epidemic proportions: in the US, seven of ten employees are disengaged, with about 18 percent of these people creating toxic work environments through their complaining and sabotage. Globally, the numbers are even worse — 87 percent of workers surveyed indicate that they are disengaged.

These numbers should shock you. In the average company, only between 13 and 30 percent of employees are moving the business forward, and it’s costing $550 billion annually in waste in the US alone. Gallup has been measuring employee engagement for more than 15 years and the metrics have barely budged, which means that whatever we’ve been doing to try to improve engagement isn’t working.

Perhaps this is because we have failed to recognize that engagement is fundamentally an emotional phenomenon. If you limit or block emotional experience and expression, as most workplaces do, you are blocking engagement.

As my colleagues and I see it, businesses can either start engaging emotions, or they can accept zombie emotions and the sub-30-percent engagement they create as an acceptable business reality. Our wager is that organizations that welcome emotions are going to absolutely smoke the competition.

Customer Experience Depends on Employee Experience

If the impact on employees is not enough to motivate companies to welcome emotions at work, then perhaps the impact to customers will be.

Returning to my personal example, if I’m an employee who engages with customers, I’m going to take my unprocessed frustration into those interactions. Customers, who are emotional beings themselves, will pick up on this tension, and you can be sure that this will negatively impact the customer experience with the company.

In economies such as that of the US, a whopping 80 percent of companies are in the service business. The latest buzz term in the service economy is “customer experience,” which really comes to one thing: when you enter a place of business, bring consultants onsite, or interact with a business via phone or web, what does it feel like? When our experience feels good, when we see that a company genuinely cares about our needs, we’re more likely to keep doing business with that company. This is as true for high-priced consulting companies and medical centers as it is for low-cost retail stores and restaurants.

Above all, customer experience relies on employees who are engaged in their work and have positive attention available for customers. In other words, customer experience is fundamentally dependent on employees’ experience at work. Disengaged employees create disengaged customers.

A New Emotional Strategy

For perhaps as long as business has existed — at the very least since the Industrial Revolution — the primary business strategy regarding employee emotions has been to deny they exist. The more like robots employees can be, the better.

For a brief period of corporate history, primarily during the ’60s and ’70s in America, psychologists were actually employed in-house to support employee emotional well-being. Today this idea seems as quaint and outdated as liquor cabinets in the office. If companies offer emotional support services these days, they nearly always outsource them. The message to employees is clear: keep your emotional self as far away from work as possible.

When it comes to deep and troubling emotional issues, this strategy makes sense. We’re not trying to make the case that companies should try to tackle severe depression or anger issues in the workplace. Instead, we are advocating that organizations consciously engage with the daily emotions that all healthy humans encounter as part of life.

The fundamental shift we need to make is from a strategy of emotional repression to one of emotional engagement. If this seems daunting, consider this: emotions never disappear, so even if you try to ignore them, they’re still impacting your company.

Conscious Engagement

Remember that once my emotions engaged me, my attention for my work dropped to zero. This might be an extreme case, but it illustrates what emotions can do to employee engagement. Once I had a chance to process my emotion with support from my co-workers, I was able to recover my work engagement in a relatively short time.

But it took us a while, and a structured approach, to get to this point. Now that we’ve alerted you to the dangers of zombie emotions, be on the lookout for them in your own workplace. Human engagement is, at heart, an emotional experience. Given that our current efforts to improve engagement aren’t moving the needle, isn’t it time we consider some bold new approaches?

3 essential ingredients for constructively engaging emotions at work

1. Build a culture of trust.

Sharing our emotions, especially uncomfortable ones, makes us vulnerable, so trust is essential for emotional engagement. One way to develop trust is for all employees, from the CEO on down, to identify their inner “backhands” — issues they are struggling with in their emotional growth. For example, a highly talented engineer might struggle with anxiety in social situations, or a very outgoing salesperson might struggle with frustration when it comes to technical issues. We at Inside Feedback took inspiration from the companies profiled in the book “An Everyone Culture” that put human development at the center of daily work life and have consistently outperformed their competition.

2. Use people metrics to track progress.

The emotional intelligence (EI) app we use allows us to chart our emotional states over days, weeks, or months. Each of us can see if our frustration or anxiety is trending up or down, and we can take action to address trends that concern us. Considering all the metrics that companies use to track the performance of computer systems, it’s surprising how few companies measure the inner well-being of their employees on a daily basis. It’s really not that hard to do: if employees check in or respond to pulse surveys and anonymously share data with the company, managers can see which departments, offices, stores, etc. might be struggling with employee engagement.

3. Practice emotional intelligence skills daily — even at work.

There are lots of great EI trainings and assessments out there, but we’ve found that the only way to effectively develop EI skills, including self-awareness and self-management, is to practice daily in the context of our work environments. New tools are making this easier than you might think. For example, EI apps can remind employees to check in and assess their emotional states, and these check-ins can be completed in less than a minute.

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