Caught Up In Our Feelings at Work

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Feelings and emotions get a bad rap, especially in the workplace.  Many managers tacitly expect employees to set them aside and just do your job. You can hear it in the person who belittles emotions, says someone is too emotional.  Or the manager is content to only deal in the realm of logic.  This tends to lead to disengagement and frustration. People don’t feel comfortable bringing their whole self to work. Leaders must be willing to embrace the difficult path of engaging with emotion.

Origins of Armoring Up

From the time we entered this world we expressed our emotions as a means to survive.  Our childhoods can be described as one big emotional minefield. In an attempt to protect themselves from unpredictable emotional explosions (from our parents, siblings, friends or situations) children develop a protective armor called the ego.   

This armor (ego) envelops our psyche like James Cameron’s avatars. So much so that we identify with it.  We assume that the critical voice in our head is our own when in fact it belongs to the ego. Inside the armored casing are the insecurities, fears, and doubts of a childhood version of ourselves that we seek to protect.  In Robert Greene’s The Laws of Human Nature, he maintains that a child who was not emotionally attuned will grow into an adult incapable of handling their emotions let alone the emotions of others.  

Avoiding the Discomfort

The inability to handle emotions becomes problematic when it comes to management.  Emotions are to the Employee-Manager relationship as water is to a river. The problem occurs when managers would rather walk over an imaginary bridge called logic to avoid the turbulent waters below.  

When another human is dependent on another as the authority figure for their survival, it is important that all lines of communication be utilized to help them achieve their goals.  Not just the ones that are convenient or comfortable for the manager. Leaders must recognize that feelings, and their resulting emotions, play a significant role in employee perception and engagement.

Soft Skills are Vital

Whenever we assume a position of authority, it must be done with a great deal of humility.  One that is able to put their ego and check and say “Look self, I don’t know everything.  There are a lot of areas I need to improve in to be more and more effective. I am willing to endure the discomfort that always accompanies growth.”

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To be truly effective as a manager of people, it also requires empathy.  In her book “Dare to Lead”, Dr. Brene Brown beautifully describes empathy as seeing someone in a ditch. Then having the courage to get down in that ditch with them knowing that you can get back out. It’s about acknowledging and reflecting those feelings back to that individual.  It isn’t just shouting down from the edge of the ditch “I’m so sorry for you -or- That sucks.”  

Keys to Brave Leadership

Brown goes on to provide 7 points to B.R.A.V.I.N.G. the inevitable emotions that arise at work.

B = Boundaries – respecting yours and having my own

R = Reliability  – being both reliable and authentic (real)

A = Accountability – I own my mistake, apologise, and make amends

V = Vault  – what I share with you, you will hold in confidence (and I do the same with you!); no gossiping; respect confidentiality

I = Integrity – choosing courage over comfort; choosing what’s right over what’s fun, easy or fast; practising my values, not only just professing my values

N = Non-judgement & reciprocity  – offering and asking for help. Not thinking less of myself for needing help, otherwise I’ll judge others for asking me for help

G = Generosity – believing the best in the other even when they disappoint me (vs. being a victim)

Emotions are part and parcel of human existence. No longer can employees be expected to negate their inherent feelings because the manager is ignorant of, incapable of or unwilling to effectively deal with them.  Leaders must get comfortable with the discomfort of delving into the murky waters of difficult emotions. They must avoid taking the easy path of ignoring emotions. This is how they will develop the trust needed to foster courageous and safe work cultures.