Emotions at Work

Renée Smith

Everyone was silent. Eighty people looked around, shifting uncomfortably, perplexed at my question.

I asked it again.

“What else might we do with our emotions at work besides being aware of them and ‘managing’ them?”

More silence.

This was unusual for this monthly gathering of A Human Workplace Olympia.

What are emotions anyway?

You see, we’d just spent a half hour understanding the basics of emotions and affirming the importance of emotional intelligence.

We’d first recalled that the word emotion [ih-moh-shuhn] has Latin and French origins that mean “to put in motion; a physical disturbance; to excite.” Today emotion is defined as “an effective state of consciousness in which feelings of joy, sorrow, fear, hate, love, or the like are experienced, and are distinguished from cognitive and volitional states of consciousness. These feelings are usually accompanied by certain physiological changes, such as an increased heartbeat or respiration, and often overt manifestations, such as crying, shaking, or laughing.

We diagramed the advent of feelings and emotions this way:

External Stimulus à Universal Physical Reactions à  Individual Mental Reactions

When we experience an action, words, or event, it can bring on bio-chemical and physiological responses that are universal to humans. When we experience a stimulus that is threatening, exciting, hopeful, surprising, worrying, angering, envious, or joyful, our human bodies react consistently. Depending on the stimulus, palms sweat, heartrate increases, muscles weaken or tense up, pupils dilate, breathing quickens, facial muscles configure, throat constricts, and so on.

But what happens next is unique to each of us. Our subconscious mental response where we assign meaning to that stimulus and physical reaction is individualized based on our personality, life experiences, and culture. And that personalized mental reaction feeds further unique physiological reactions.

There is some disagreement about which of these phases are “feelings” and which are “emotions.” And honestly, for our purposes, I don’t think the labels matter. What is essential is understanding that we have a universal physical reaction and then an individual mental reaction when we experience feelings and emotions. And these are a normal part of our human experience.

Enter Emotional Intelligence

In 1996, Daniel Goleman published his seminal book, “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.” In this, he coined the term “amygdala hijack” and offered a set of essential skills for effectively managing oneself and others in the workplace when this limbic reaction occurs.

When we experience something that matches up with the need for fight, flight or freeze, the limbic brain kicks in responding fractions of a second faster than the rational brain. It takes control putting us into immediate “amygdala hijack” to protect us from harm mostly, though it can also prompt our joy, humor or love. A core competence of emotional intelligence is to recognize and manage ourselves when we are experiencing an amygdala hijack or when someone else does. Non-reactivity is key to not escalating or expanding a “negative” amygdala hijack.

While others have both built on and questioned Goleman’s work, his original treatise remains popular as guiding wisdom for leaders and teams today. In a 1998 article in Harvard Business Review titled, “What Makes a Leader?” Goleman summarizes on page 9 the five components of emotional intelligence for leaders. They are:

1.     Self-awareness – the ability to recognize and understand your moods, emotions, and drives, as well as their effect on others.

2.     Self-regulation – the ability to control and redirect disruptive impulses and moods; the propensity to suspend judgment – to think before acting.

3.     Motivation – a passion to work for reasons that go beyond money or status; a propensity to pursue goals with energy and persistence.

4.     Empathy – the ability to understand the emotional makeup of other people; skill in treating people according to their emotional reactions.

5.     Social skill – proficiency in managing relationships and building networks; an ability to find common ground and build rapport.

 These five components offer a pretty well-rounded approach to emotions that balance personal competence with social competence and can be learned and strengthened. Taken together these five are solid skills of a good leader; they aren’t the only skills but they are good ones.

Over-Regulating Emotions

The problem is that over time these five have not been taken together as a set. Instead, in practice, the first two, self-awareness and self-regulation, are often emphasized on their own. And while motivation and social skills show up as general leadership competencies in other contexts, empathy, the ability to feel with someone and respond in kind, has been largely absent from popular leadership thinking until recently.

So we’ve spent 20 years strengthening the view that emotions are negative, potentially harmful, and that the emotionally intelligent leader, or by extension an emotionally intelligent employee, should be aware of their emotions so they can manage and suppress those emotions, keeping the ship on an even keel and the trains running on time.

That this skewed understanding emotional intelligence is common makes sense. Think about it: I am a leader who’s already uncomfortable with emotions. I don’t have very strong emotional skills, so I’m glad to learn that it is “emotionally intelligent” to be aware of my emotions so I can manage and limit them. What a relief to not have to deal with emotions! Emotional intelligence becomes an escape from human emotions at work.

Now this is not what Goleman intended; it leaves off the empathy. But it is certainly the convenient understanding and practice that has evolved.

“What Else We Can Do With Emotions??”

No wonder when I asked 80 people what else we might do with emotions at work besides regulate them, no one had any idea. For the last couple decades we’ve been told we shouldn’t do anything else with emotions at work, because emotions had no place at work.

I repeated my question to the group, “What else might we do with emotions at work?”

One person raised their hand and ventured, “We can coach team members and support them to gain emotional control.”

“Yes, we can. And that would be another good example of managing emotions.”

I waited.

Another person offered, “We can model emotional regulation to show how it’s done.”

“True, we can do that too. But what else can we do with emotions at work besides regulate them?”

Finally, after a long pause a third person spoke up, “We can experience emotions as part of being human.”

Yes! There it is! That’s right. Our emotions are not a problem to be solved. Our emotions are not a weakness to be pitied. Our emotions are not a danger to be subdued.

Our emotions are a normal part of our human experience and, in fact, can be a source of wisdom and insight.

So, rather than suppress our emotions, we can experience and learn from them.

The Ultimate List of Emotions catalogs some 400 emotions, to give us more language to use to understand and express ourselves accurately. This source points out that emotions “let you know what to do in a given situation. They can help you avoid danger or a potential threat.” If a customer is frustrated over a determination, that’s your cue to use customer listening practices so they feel heard and understood. “Emotions also motivate you to take action.” If you are worried about pleasing a client, you may be motivated to double check that all their requirements have been met. “Emotions also clue you in on your likes and dislikes. If you feel angry because your colleague is taking credit for your hard work, you may want to sign the projects you send your boss next time. Emotions also help others to understand you and what you feel. Your expressions, body language, and words all reflect your inner world to those around you. Emotions are crucial to effective communication.”

Why would we try to function at work without all the benefits that our emotions can provide? It’s like driving with a flat tire. Actually, as we’ve managed our emotions out of the workplace, it’s like we’ve been purposefully letting the air out of the tire before we drive!

From “Saving the World Solo” (page 9)

by Pamela Sackett

Most people don’t even think about feelings

or think about how they think

about feelings

or whether or not they think favorably about feelings,

so they probably just try to control them—

but you can’t have feelings

and control feelings

at the same time,

and if you can’t have feelings,

I mean really have them,

you can’t think favorably about them.

If you can’t think favorably about them,

you can’t have them.

And if you can’t have them,

you’d have to control them.

If you thought favorably about them

you wouldn’t try to control them…unless you’re an actor.

“But things might get … emotional!”

We do worry that if we make room for emotions in the workplace, they may spiral out of control and distract from our work. Do we risk things getting a little messy? Sure. Can we learn skills to be both compassionate and have boundaries? Of course.

“You seem really sad today. Would you like to take a walk on our break and spend a few minutes talking?”

“I’ve got to get back to work now, but I hope you feel supported. Let’s take a walk again tomorrow and check in.”

“This loss is really hitting you hard. I can understand why. I’m so sorry. In addition to our talks on breaks, you might really find Employee Assistance Program expertise to be helpful. Can I help you get connected to them?”

To be clear, if your employee experiences loss, trauma or hardship it is reasonable, rational and normal for them to experience strong emotions. And it is reasonable, rational and normal for you as a leader to demonstrate care and support for them. It is your job as a leader to acknowledge their situation, and to, at different times, listen compassionately, or approve leave, or rally caring support, or refer them to professional resources, always respecting privacy and preferences.

Looking back on my recent time as a leader, I’ve had the privilege of supporting team members through some difficult times as they faced clinical depression, the death of a parent, anxiety disorder, a child threatening suicide, a grown child with opioid addiction, a wife with a chronic illness, a child with cancer, a parent suffering a stroke, and the loss of beloved pets. None of this was easy and at times the care and support took a lot out of us. But life is like that, and it was the right thing to do to provide emotional support and to be with them in these experiences; it was the human thing to do. And it created a very strong sense of team and mutual commitment.

Our Real Risk

While emotions at work can seem risky, let’s be clear about our real risk. As a society we are not suffering from too much connection, empathy, and belonging. Quite the contrary. We are suffering from an epidemic of isolation, disconnection, and loneliness with serious physiological and psychological impacts. In fact, a lack of social connection creates the same health risks as factors such as smoking up to 15 cigarettes per day, obesity, physical inactivity, and air pollution (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2010). Our risk is not caring too much at work; it is caring too little.

Since we spend the better portion of our lives at work, leaders and teams can make a difference in the physical and emotional health of colleagues and communities by creating stronger human connections, emotional support and care at work.

The good news is that doing the human thing, the right thing, that is building authentic human relationships with social and emotional support, will enhance your effectiveness as a team rather than detract from it. These trusting relationships are the foundation for effective collaboration, problem solving, and improvement. They result in greater loyalty, engagement and morale.

Practicing Being Human at Work

At A Human Workplace Olympia that day, we practiced witnessing and supporting each other’s emotions. It seems strange that we need to practice this essential human skill, but because we’ve been told for so long to suppress emotions, we often don’t know how to be with people experiencing emotions in a professional setting. So we practiced.

Forty pairs gave each other their focused attention. They took a deep breath and consciously opened their hearts to the other. They took turns sharing stories of times when they experienced emotions at work. They described the external stimulus, their physiological reaction, and then their individual subconscious mental reaction. They shared how others responded, what the impact was, and what could have been different.

With some preparatory coaching, partners listened actively without offering advice or asking intrusive questions. They used supportive body language and allowed silence. They were coached to offer a tissue if needed but to refrain from touching the person experiencing a deep emotion. And they expressed thanks for being trusted with their story.

We practiced being human at work. And 80 people went back to work better equipped to make work more human.


Join us October 8 and 9 in Tacoma for the free 2019 Washington State Government Lean Transformation Conference for our breakout session: “A Human Workplace: Experiencing Emotions at Work” for a deep dive into how to support emotions in the workplace.

Tagged: emotions, human-centered, leadership, teams, isolation, emotional intelligence, empathy