Emotions: A Workplace Dilemma

He sat back in his chair and crossed his arms. He frowned and sighed.

She responded quickly and sharply “That’s not what the data says.”

They responded to the dilemma by sharing a story about how disrupted expectations were managed at their last job.

She leaned forward and opened her mouth to speak, then sat back and looked away.

After the meeting, they went into the break room and poured a cup of coffee. They stirred it slowly while absent-mindedly looking at the sink.

After the meeting, she went back to her office and closed the door. She put her head in her hands and wondered why she tried so hard.

After the meeting, he dove into spreadsheets and tried to fix the relational challenge through technology.

Disruption happens in all organizations. When we feel unsettled, unmet, or unseen few of us know the steps to resolve it.

Disruption causes a cascade of emotions. These emotions usually remain unnamed and unspoken. When emotions linger – like after the above experience – they grow. They gain a life of their own.

Emotions find ways to manifest. Unless we name, build, and practice a healthy pathway to process emotions, they overwhelm us when we least expect it. A build-up of emotions makes us susceptible to react instead of respond to situations. The depressurizing of our system – our reaction – often causes unintentional harm.

In this organization, the woman sought solace from a co-worker. She used someone else to resolve the disruption she felt from not speaking her mind a second time at the meeting. Through the conversation she felt validated. She felt genuinely connected to this person by talking about the other two people at the meeting and receiving confirmation for her opinion. This is triangulation. Only with rock solid boundaries and a purpose to resolve the original disruption is this ever a good choice.

He thinks these two will never be able to deliver the results he wants. He explains the goals well, but they fail to produce anything new. He blames them for not working hard enough or for not being smarter. He contemplates a new hire, but they are so costly. He wonders if they might know a new way, but then dismisses their way as “touchy/feely.” Then, he dives back into his spreadsheets to alleviate his discomfort through relentlessly applying a technical solution to a relational problem.

They understand that until people feel safe enough to take risks in relationship at work this pattern will never be resolved. They hope the story from their last organization would be helpful. They think it might be a good time to find a job at another company that has a more progressive and proactive approach to interpersonal communication. The hope-for-the-best-but-keep-the-same-practices is not satisfying. They know there are other workplaces that value the emotional life of their people.

The emotional impact of interpersonal disruption looks different in all people. Some spray their emotions on other – by yelling or huffing and sighing loudly or through unexplained facial expressions in the workplace. They want you to feel or sense their pain or disappointment. This behavior is often unconscious. They get feedback like, “You raise your voice to make your point.” Or “Is something going on? You seem upset.”

Others turn emotions inside. They create a lock vault for their pain. They stew quietly. They own the whole problem, taking the fault all on themselves for their incompetence. In any relationship, whether it be work or personal, there are two or more people involved in the creation and maintenance of the relationship. When one person is disrupted, the other person or people have a role in their disruption. This is hard to see and hard to admit. This is how barriers between people become impassable. We refuse to admit our fault, or we take responsibility for the whole problem. Often wondering why we can’t solve it. People in this pattern receive feedback like, “You take things too personally.” Or “You are too sensitive/emotional.”

Others blame. They believe the problem exist outside of themselves. They let situations roll off their backs and get back to work. They take no responsibility for the issue. They move through the world as if emotionless. They have learned to stuff their emotions. These people often get feedback like, “I can’t tell what you are thinking.” Or “You seem withdrawn.” Or “Doesn’t this bother you?”

These are a few common organizational personas that we see in our work. There are as many ways to manage disruptive emotions as there are people. In organizations, as a manager, or employee, how can we create healthy expression of our disruptive humanness?

The first step is always to name your feelings. Then name your needs. This practice comes from non-violent communication principles made famous by Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Aung San Suu Kyi, and in a book Non-Violent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg. We find Grok Cards to be extremely helpful for this work.

When you name your feeling and need you settle your system. Try it. The next time you feel disrupted, name your feelings and needs. Choose as many as fit the situation. You will be amazed at the relief you feel from being seen – even by yourself! You will likely be a little baffled – how did this simple process help me feel clear? And lastly, you may feel dissatisfied. You are changing a pattern. Even healthy pattern shifts are disruptive.

Another tool comes from Liberating Structures. It is called Heard, Seen, and Respected. It is a 35-minute process that allows teams to talk about a time when they felt NOT heard, seen, or respected. This practice is structured to help participants develop listening skills and empathy. The way the groups are structured allows us to share our humanity in confidence with another person. Then move onto to a larger and larger group. When we move into the larger groups, we realize that everyone has felt NOT heard, seen or respected at some point. It normalizes the experience. The practice discharges pent up emotions and helps groups move forward consciously.

This work is important because, when we are in a group, we not only feel our emotions, but we are impacted by the emotions of other people. You impact others and they impact you. Whether we care to admit it or not. Mirror neurons – discovered by Italian scientists in the 1980’s – in our brains pick up on emotionally significant signals in the bodies of other people. Even if you are keeping your emotions to yourself, people still feel them. When we normalize emotions in our workplace, we take one step forward to creating a culture of trust.

Start there. Name your feelings. Name your needs. Normalize your humanness. Brené Brown’s forthcoming research on leadership[1] skills states that all effective leaders can name between 30 to 40 feelings and needs. How many can you name?

If you need help, invite perspective. We love conversations about how to build healthy emotional practices in individuals, groups, and organizations.

[1] Brown, B. (2018) Dare to Lead. New York: Random House.

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