Why emotions should be expressed at work

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My customer Eric, the VP of a large sales team, has calmed down again. Although he looked like he was about to leave, he quickly turned to a self-deprecating joke and brushed my question aside. Again. Almost every bi-weekly coaching session starts like this. After exchanging courtesies, any attempt at a deeper question will run into an invisible emotional wall as Eric withdraws, pans, or distracts. We spend most of our sessions staying away from emotional issues.

Research has shown that the ability to recognize emotions is critical to how companies deal with stress and thrive. Since understanding our emotions is a cornerstone of self-awareness, it is critical to building healthy, resilient team members and teams to be aware of what we feel and experience on an individual and organizational level. Google’s five year old to learn, Project Aristotle, examined the relationship between productivity and psychological safety and found that only those teams that are vulnerable, express emotions and create connections outperform other teams.

The practice identified in the Google study can be difficult for individuals and teams. But the reward is great when companies help their employees create an emotionally secure culture. When Chris Collins and Ken Smith researched 136 tech companies in 2006 (registration required) found that an organizational climate of trust, collaboration, and common codes directly affects a company’s ability to generate revenue and sales growth.

In Eric’s case, after months of dismissing questions about his feelings, he finally paused long enough to articulate his fear – the fear of not being good enough, of not belonging, of being fired – was the primary feeling he felt avoided. As he verbalized this, he noticed that the negative charge of this feeling was dissipating and turning into a desire to have more influence and connection with his colleagues and managers. The result: Eric’s team’s revenue grew 30% in the final quarter, partly due to Eric’s improved skills in managing team dynamics, delegating to key players, and asking for help during frustrated times.

It has never been more important to take the time to recognize feelings in our workplace. While talking about emotions can seem like opening a Pandora’s box, researcher and author Dr. Brené Brown in her youngest interview If you carry around a sealed box full of emotions with author and entrepreneur Tim Ferriss, you are likely living in the box and not protecting others from it.

If you are struggling to acknowledge your own emotions or those of others, consider the following strategies to find out what you are feeling and experiencing in your life and at work:

1. Find someone who will listen. Start by taking five minutes with someone you know to identify your feelings. You can find a partner at work or at home who is willing to devote some time to listening while you share your feelings. It is important that no judgment is passed and that your listeners refrain from resolving anything.

2. Reduce your own stress. Start by sensing the sensations in your body, then isolate what you are experiencing. According to research by neuroscientist Dr. Alex basket in The upward spiral: Using neuroscience to reverse the course of depression, one small change at a timeWhen our brains are overloaded, they suffer an increase in chemicals – increased limbic and amygdala function – which tarnishes the abstract functioning of the brain and repeatedly forces us into a fight-flight-freeze mode. When people name their emotions, they can move from using the more primitive brain centers to the neocortex, or prefrontal cortex, which is home to curiosity and higher functions. The mere act of differentiating what is happening can help lessen the stress response.

3. Wait 90 seconds. If you experience a particularly intense feeling, wait 90 seconds. Emotions are like waves. They go through, shift and mutate into something else; they are temporary.

4. Find the lesson. Emotions can contain helpful advice and encourage insightful contemplation. Find the helpful or educational part of the feeling, whatever it is, and see if you can put some of it into practice.

The practice of acknowledging our feelings is key to expanding our emotional intelligence and making our jobs thrive. It can be awkward, but as a leader, it’s essential to developing a team’s emotional intelligence. Help your team deal with the stress caused by emotional suppression and stay open-minded throughout the outcome. That way, you will find that your communities and workplaces are thriving.

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