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Emotions @ Work – They are not just personal

Most weeks I spend my time in the coaching room talking to people about their inner lives. Their hopes, their dreams, their challenges and their frustrations. A thread that holds many of these coaching conversations together is that of emotion – wrestling with not having enough emotion and or having too much. It’s a struggle, I too can relate to.

Leaders tell me that they want to bring their passion to their roles, but they don’t want this passion to affect their judgement. They want to be empathic and warm hearted towards their people, while also maintaining their cool minded objectivity.

We have been socialised in a culture that views emotions and their displays with great suspicion and this spills over into how we experience our emotional selves at work.

It seems we all want to manage our emotions and not feel them.

Gianpiero Petriglieri, an Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD, and an expert on leadership and learning in the workplace, suggests that when we expend energy managing our emotions, we try to exploit, diffuse, or sanitize them, far more than staying with them long enough to discern their meaning.

And yet, this is where the gold lies. Emotions are data. Not just about our own inner lives, neuroses, longings and fears. They have as much to say about the workplace culture and system we are working in. Let me explain.

A systemic understanding – A systemic view of organisations encourages us to think with greater nuance about how personal predilections and cultural phenomena interact and flavour how we are made to think and feel in certain situations, at work. Viewing emotional experience, as shared organisational experience, rather than only as a source of self-generated individual experience (i.e. “It’s just me that is feeling this”), sheds new light on what might be actually be going on and how we might address it.

Thinking systemically helps us think with greater complexity about what is happening beneath the surface in our organisational lives. For example:

Why do we get stuck repeating unhealthy ways of relating across departmental lines?

Why are some role holders continually disenfranchised, whilst others mostly seem to be thriving?

There is a truism to the saying “emotions are contagious”. Emotions are passed between us. Enacted and expressed by some and repressed by others. In a cultural sense, it is useful to discern what purpose these enactments and repressions serve. Petriglieri encourages leaders to ask themselves three questions to help them extract systemic insight from individual and collective emotional experience:

1. How do we show (which) emotions?  Stop asking whether you show enough emotions. Ask instead how you, or others feel permitted to show them. Psychologists will tell us that we are always expressing emotions, even if we are not talking about them. There are no emotions we express more than those we are trying to hide, especially from ourselves. Ask yourself what emotions are lurking beneath the surface in your organisational experience? It may not always be unpleasant emotions that are denied or hidden in plain sight. In some workplaces, aggression is acceptable, whilst showing open compassion and empathy for others is frowned upon. Once you have identified which emotions are being shown and which are felt, but not expressed, ask how this might give you fresh insight into your particular dilemma.

2. Who gets to feel what? Emotions are seldom distributed equally. They are often “assigned” to certain role holders. Consider why some role holders usually get to feel and express confidence and poise, whilst others are more practiced at feeling concern and agitation. Petriglieri proposes that “The former is usually assigned to, and expected of, people in powerful and visible roles. The latter is consigned to those in less powerful and visible ones, to nurse on behalf of those who must avoid them”.

A systemic view of emotional experience asks us to consider that it is the roles themselves that elicit emotional responses in us, no matter who the role holder may happen to be.

3. What is the purpose of these emotions (and who benefits from them)? If we think more carefully about which emotions are silenced, which are voiced and which role holders gets to feel and express different emotions, we could then assume that this not random, nor is it determined by the individual’s personality traits or their ability to self-regulate alone.

Think about these characters: The heartless CEO, the guilty working mom, the ambitious middle manager, the cool and dispassionate engineer, the overly ambitious Councillor, the frazzled technical assistant.

A systems psychodynamic lens on organisational experiences proposes that these role holders are conscripted into voicing or repressing these feelings, as it supports the functioning of the organisation in some way. To extract greater insight and find new ways to deal with organisational challenges it is useful to ask and answer the following questions: What does this allow? What does this disable? Who does this expose or protect? And how are people benefitting from this?

If we interpret emotional experience at work in this way, it sheds new light on the nature of relationships and what it might take to change unhelpful or unhealthy ways of being and working together. It is vitally important to take responsibility for how we show up at work and what we bring into the relational space. I continue to encourage my coaching clients to take on the role of self-reflection with honesty and diligence, but also encourage them not to stop there.

Asking and answering these 3 questions helps build greater systemic capacity, to compassionately process the unsettling emotional realities of organisational membership, and promote active and considered engagement with unquestioned cultural assumptions surrounding them.

As Petriglieri aptly states “We can’t be saner, or at least freer, until we stop sanitizing emotions. We can’t make workplaces fairer if we lock people into managing them alone. Yes, emotions are personal. They are just not all about us”.