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Should you control your emotions (at work)?

I had the pleasure of talking with Eilene Zimmerman from the New York Times a few weeks ago.  She wanted to talk with me about my take on emotions at work – specifically anger and outbursts – for her Career Couch column.  We discussed a variety of scenarios in which people are angry or upset at work, and what to do when that happens.  At The Possibility Practice, we don’t give you answers, we help you ask new questions – which opens up all kinds of new possibilities.  You can imagine how this can be a challenge in a “how to” discussion.  Since we both love asking questions, we had a fun and lively conversation on this important, and timely (lots of people are angry at, or about work these days) topic.

Should you control your emotions at work? People ask me this question all the time.  Well, usually, it isn’t a question; it is an answer, a given – “you have to control your emotions (at work)!” – a well known fact, an “everyone knows that”! Often, I am reminded of this understanding when I am talking with someone who is experiencing a good deal of emotions regarding a situation at work or in their personal life. And, often, this person is more distressed about the fact that they are feeling something than they are about whatever it is that is going on.

One of the most pernicious beliefs that people in our culture have, is that emotions are “bad” and need to be controlled and concealed.  For many people, this applies to their lives in general, and is particularly true for their professional lives. We don’t like our feelings (except the ones we use to hate our feelings); we think our emotionality is a problem, and something to be squashed and avoided at all cost.

Why should we care about, or question this longstanding common sense way of being? Rather than save us trouble and money and relationships, it turns out it, it costs us A LOT.

Suppressing emotions is a way that we fight and push against ourselves; we twist ourselves up, in an effort to negate this aspect of who we are. When we negate that (in ourselves or others), it creates an enormous amount of stress. Study after study correlates the suppression of emotions with cardiovascular problems, weight problems, an array of autoimmune diseases, and a long list of mental health difficulties. Stress has been called the “health epidemic of the 21st century” by the World Health Organization, and is estimated to cost American businesses up to $300 billion a year. Obviously, this has profound implications for us all.

In addition, by excluding emotionality as part of our picture, we  – individuals and organizations – are deprived of an incredibly rich resource and perspective, a way of seeing and experiencing the world that adds a more sensuous, textured and fully human aspect to life – which includes, if you are lucky, work. Ignoring, despising, and disallowing emotionality leaves us, individually and collectively, emotionally and culturally poor and malnourished and without all that we could have at our disposal to live fully, joyously and productively.

Am I saying that you should be freely expressing your emotions about everything from co-worker relationships, attitudes towards management etc., and just “go with it”, at work and elsewhere?  No.  Am I suggesting that you trust your emotional responses as gospel and true not matter what? No.

We are all born with emotive responses and capacities – it is part of our humanity, our natural resources, if you will. Emotions are an asset, a friend, to be valued and attended to, a tool at our disposal to use to build our lives in all aspects, including at work. They are the seeds of creativity and possibility, if you are open to making use of them.

Q: How can you make use of your emotions (at work)?

A: Question the givens.

I recommend that you question some of the “givens”, the assumptions you have about emotions (at work) that prevent you from having the full benefit of emotionality in your work environment.  Here are two big assumptions I question:

1. Emotional outbursts are individual’s problems.

Whether people have outbursts, or “behave” inappropriately emotionally speaking, will likely have something to do with the environment in which they work. Is the culture of the workplace one in which people – workers and management – are supported to make use of, include and contribute their feelings and experiences towards the betterment of the organization?  Is it one in which the relationships between people, and the overall culture is genuinely supportive of the people in it, respects them and takes them seriously as partners in creating it? If it is an open, inclusive and respectful environment, there is no need for an outburst, as there will be ongoing, open, and collaborative communication and work process. We know that organizations organized in this fashion reap benefits in productivity and success.

2. Emotions are a problem and have no place at work.

How do you know?  What if, used effectively, they help you and your organization to function better? What if you could change your relationship to your emotions, and relate to them as a road sign you need to read along the way? Not so that you react in some knee-jerk fashion and do and perform whatever it is you are feeling, but rather, that you relate to your feelings at work (and everywhere) as a nudge, a guide, pointing to something you need to have a closer look at, and a lens through which you can see aspects of life not otherwise visible.

What if you could slow down, and take a philosophical stroll with whatever you are feeling (and perhaps a friend to bounce things off of), and have a look what is going on and what you are reacting to, with curiosity and interest?  If you are feeling something – angry, resentful, frustrated – chances are, it has something to do with what is actually going on with a co-worker, superior, employee, or something outside of work that is distracting you.

Listen to what you are feeling, look at what is happening and what you are reacting to, and allow it to impact what you do with what you feel. Maybe: you need to let someone know how you are feeling and what your concerns are, or you realize that you need to make a move elsewhere, either within or outside of the organization. You may realize that you are bored and need a greater challenge. Perhaps there are people or policies in the organization that impact you and the organization negatively, that you can address and do something about.

In slowing down, you might see that you are sensitive to some things, and are in fact, over-reacting, or, you have things going on in your personal life that are very distressing and you have not spoken with anyone about it.  Sometimes an “outburst” is a helpful reminder that you cannot (and no one can) carry the emotional burden of things all alone and need to speak with someone – friends or a professional – and get support.  By having a closer look at your feelings, you may be able to see that you are performing in ways that are contributing to your and other people’s upset and stress.

And maybe you are sensitive to something happening with a client or colleague that is important in cultivating the relationship, input that others miss because they do not value emotional cues and expressions, and thus do not even see them.  In getting closer to and making use of your emotional responses, you can provide leadership to those around you about things going on that need attending to, for the good of everyone involved.

Emotionality is one of the most important natural resources we all have, and the least tapped into, creating a cultural and social deficit of huge proportions. If we are able to create organizational environments that value and leverage emotional input, we will not only lower the costs associated with suppressing them, we will develop inclusive and productive ones, rich with the full spectrum of human contributions and sensibilities. And, perhaps, a few less outbursts.

So, what do you think?


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Karen Steinberg