In the previous episode I talked about emotions in the workplace. Like how we try to distance ourselves from the fact that we are creatures of emotion, and that showing certain emotions makes us feel uncomfortable. I’m gonna continue with that line of thinking in this episode.
In the modern workplace, we are obsessed with positivity. Employees have to be happy happy happy all the time, no matter what. Put a smile on when you start work, and don’t take it off until you’re done for the day. Feeling sad? Doesn’t matter – be happy. Feeling angry? Doesn’t matter – be happy. Some companies even have chief happiness officers, who tend to work in HR and focus on employee wellness.
Now there’s nothing wrong with wanting employees to feel positive emotions, like feeling comfortable, happy, satisfied, and so on. And there’s technically nothing wrong with elevating happiness so much that it has a chief officer dedicated to it, even though I think that’s going a bit overboard. But there is a problem when you want employees to only show positive emotions, even when they’re not feeling positive. And it’s even worse when you punish the expression of any negative emotion. Only positivity, all the time.
Those kinds of environments aren’t healthy. They put strain on employees with a lot of emotional labor, and they don’t let employees be themselves. It’s that kind of emotional transparency, that emotional vulnerability, that I want to focus on in this episode.
I’ll be going over three topics throughout this episode. The first is the mystery and mishap of emotional cultures. The second is the mystery of emotional vulnerability. And the final topic is about the mystery of managing emotions.
An organization’s culture is the foundation on which everything is built. To offer a definition, organizational culture is the system of values, norms, and behaviors that are developed, altered, and maintained by members of an organization. So your organization’s culture shapes, and is shaped by, how your employees think and behave.
But the thing about culture is that there can be a culture for something as large as a country, all the way to something as small as two or three people. So it makes sense that are different sub-cultures within your organization. These are typically broken out by location, function, department…you know, where there are natural or built-in boundaries between employees. There are also sub-cultures that are more topical, like a diversity & inclusion culture, a communication culture, and even an emotional culture.
An organization’s emotional culture is how employees treat and respond to emotions shown by others, and how well employees manage and cope with their own emotions. For the sake of simplicity, you can break cultures down into healthy and unhealthy, and I’ll do the same for emotional cultures.
Healthy emotional cultures don’t just tolerate emotional complexity — they welcome it. Organizations with these cultures generally understand that employees are humans, and as such strive to offer a supportive work environment. These organizations prioritize transparency, honesty, and employee wellbeing.
Leaders and managers in these cultures know the importance of connecting with employees to listen to their feedback. When something feels off or a stressful situation comes up, employees at all levels feel equipped to cope with their emotions, as well as confidently express their concerns.
These organizations also understand that work and personal lives are often difficult to separate, so they encourage employees to do what’s needed to maximize their physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. Work-life balance and flexibility are high priorities.
On the other hand, in organizations with unhealthy emotional cultures, you’ve got two extremes. One extreme is that employees often feel like they’re walking on eggshells, that expressing anything except smiles and happiness is discouraged and maybe punished. Employees don’t feel cared for as people and bringing personal lives into the workplace is frowned upon.
These kinds of unhealthy emotional cultures are all about suppression, of keeping displays of negative emotions completely hidden. Employees hide their true feelings the moment they walk through the door or log on for the day. This state of suppression is not only uncomfortable and unproductive — it’s unhealthy. Suppressing emotions can lead to issues like headaches, insomnia, intestinal problems, mental illness, and heart disease, so emotional labor shouldn’t be ignored.
The other extreme is when emotions run too wild, when they’re not kept in check. There may be a lot of gossip and avoidance because employees feel like they can’t have honest and direct conversations with each other. And they feel like those conversations aren’t possible because they frequently lead to misunderstandings, conflict, yelling, and aggression.
In these cultures, leaders and managers rarely step up to actually manage negative emotions or conflict. In fact, leaders and managers may openly contribute to those conflicts, making them even worse over time. And because negative emotions frequently override positive emotions, or if individuals don’t know how to express their emotions in a respectful, professional way, employees are more likely to feel uncomfortable and disengaged at work. In fact, in our own research we found that employees are less engaged the more frequently their coworkers and managers express negative emotions.
The main takeaway from this first section is that you should be aware of the kind of emotional culture you have both in your organization overall, and in your team specifically. Have you noticed that employees tend to be pretty relaxed, or do they seem constrained or otherwise suppressed? Have you noticed that employees deal well with others’ emotions, or does conflict seem to be more common? Do you yourself feel like you can or can’t express certain emotions around your team? Think about those questions, with an emphasis on how you can create or maintain a healthy emotional culture in your team.
When you’re emotionally vulnerable, you’re lowering your defenses, dropping your guard. As with anything emotional, there’s positive and negative. Positive emotional vulnerability could be joking around with coworkers after you finally feel comfortable being around them. Or it could be a team member being very open with you about how great of a manager they think you are. Negative emotional vulnerability, on the other hand, could be slamming your fist on the table during a heated discussion. Or it could be a team member becoming absolutely non-responsive, like a complete shutdown, after they were passed over for a promotion.
Emotional vulnerability is putting yourself out there, intentionally or unintentionally. Showing a part of yourself that you may feel sensitive about, exposing something that makes you feel seen by others. Like think about the last time you were emotionally vulnerable with someone. You might’ve felt a strong sense of acceptance afterward, or maybe you felt embarrassed or ashamed at having been so open. Maybe your heart was racing and you were unable to keep eye contact with whoever you were talking to. Maybe you hoped that you wouldn’t be judged. That you and your feelings would be accepted or, at the very least, heard.
Negative emotional vulnerability is often uncomfortable for everyone involved. Not only for the person being vulnerable, but also for the people receiving that vulnerability. Because being on the receiving end of vulnerability means that you now have more responsibility navigating that social situation.
What do I mean by that? Well, think about a team member coming to you, visibly distressed, saying they need to talk. You go to a room, close the door, and they just start sobbing. Crying really hard. Chances are pretty good you’ll feel at a loss at what to do. Should you remain silent until your team member speaks? Should you ask what’s wrong? Should you give them a hug? Should you tell them to stop crying and get over it? Should you leave the room? And then after the situation’s resolved, what do you do? Do you talk with HR, keep it to yourself, tell the whole team, check up with the person in a few hours?
Which of those options would you choose, and why? If you choose to, say, leave the room and never mention it again, you took the most avoidant path possible and must shoulder the responsibility of what you communicated to your team member. That you can’t handle those emotions. Imagine what that would do to your relationship with that team member. Likewise, think about if you told the person to stop crying then told the whole team about it the next day. What message does that send?
That’s what I mean by more responsibility. The consequences of your actions are heavier when emotional vulnerability is a factor. Like if someone smiles at a joke you said, or seems annoyed with a rude customer, you don’t really have a lot of outcomes to consider. Kind of business as usual. But when there’s vulnerability, especially around a negative emotion, there’s more at stake.
Referring back to the previous section, I’d say that having a healthy emotional culture means that most employees can effectively and appropriately navigate emotional vulnerability. Both in showing vulnerability and receiving vulnerability.
In our own research, we found that employees who feel comfortable showing their true emotions at work have much higher engagement levels than those who don’t. So feeling emotionally safe at work may enhance engagement. It could also be the case that higher levels of engagement may allow employees to feel increasingly comfortable being emotionally transparent — likely because they feel connected and valued at work.
The main takeaway from this second section is that how you respond to others’ emotional vulnerability is an indication of whether, and how much, you might need to change as a manager. Now I know this section was short, but the main point was to introduce you to the idea of emotional vulnerability in general, as well as the notion that that vulnerability brings with it more responsibility.
In the previous episode, I focused on ways to maximize positive emotions and minimize negative emotions. I want to be clear that you can’t control everything, and you shouldn’t be expected to control everything as a manager. Negative emotions will always be felt and expressed by you and your team at various times, no matter how supportive you are. So when those negative emotions are felt by you or expressed by your team, you need to be prepared.
First let’s focus on you. When thinking about your own emotions, remember these steps: recognize, understand, and manage.
First you need to recognize emotions. Like if you start to feel an especially negative emotion, don’t panic. Take a deep breath and recognize it for what it is. Don’t react immediately — instead try to put a label on what it is you’re feeling. If you feel upset, what’s causing you to feel that way? Are you angry? Frustrated? Sad? A combination? When did you become aware of that feeling? What triggered it?
What’s also important is to not judge yourself for feeling a particular emotion. It doesn’t help anyone, especially you, to beat yourself up for feeling an emotion. You might feel mad at a team member. You could also feel happy that something negative just happened to a team member. For now, try to avoid feeling guilty and just accept that you’re feeling it. You can break it down in the next step.
After you recognize you’re feeling a certain emotion, aim to understand it. Dig deep and try to discover its origin. Are your emotions coming from something within you, or something external? If it’s a familiar emotion, think about other times you’ve felt this emotion and how you previously responded. What went well in those moments? What didn’t? How do you want to respond differently in this moment?
Finally, after you reflected on both recognizing and understanding your emotions, now you need to manage them. Here are some questions to consider. Do you still feel the need to address the situation, after a few minutes or hours have passed? Is it possible you overreacted? Are there things that need to be resolved before you can move on? If the situation involves another person, what will you say when you do address the situation? What do you think the other person will say? Finally, what did you learn from this situation that you can apply to future situations like it?
Now to shift focus a bit, I want to go over dealing with, responding to, and managing emotions in other people. Regardless of how well you handle your own emotions, you cannot control the emotions of others. But it is important to learn how to acknowledge them and respond appropriately. Unresolved issues can lead to decreased productivity, damaged relationships, and disengagement.
Mistakes happen. They’re inevitable. And although mistakes shouldn’t be simply accepted, they also shouldn’t be met with scolding or punishment every time they happen. Berating or punishing employees, especially in front of their peers, can cause humiliation and hostility.
On the flip side, calmly correcting or excusing the rare mistake can build trust. But if mistakes continue to pile up, you and your team members should get together and create a performance improvement plan to make sure everyone’s on the same page with clear performance expectations.
Sharing emotions, especially uncomfortable ones, makes us feel vulnerable, like I talked about in the previous section. And we can’t be vulnerable if we don’t trust the people we’re sharing those emotions with. Everyone should feel comfortable being themselves and expressing emotions. When there’s a culture of transparency and authenticity, employees can understand how others feel and adjust accordingly.
When managers and leaders are consistently unavailable, employees tend to get anxious. Regularly making time to connect with your team provides opportunities for you to instill confidence in your team members, their work, and their performance. Set uninterrupted time apart for each employee at least once a month so they can ask questions, provide updates, raise concerns, and provide feedback.
A lot of the time, someone experiencing a negative emotion isn’t immediately looking for solutions. They simply want to express themselves, to vent, to verbalize how they’re feeling. Listening to them allows them to get it all out there and makes them feel cared for and heard. It also establishes you as a trusted resource who can be depended on. Let them tell you or ask you if they want to problem solve. But until then, just listen.
The main takeaway from this final section is that it’s important for you as a manager to be prepared for the negative emotions that will inevitably come up in your team, either in yourself or others. Learn to recognize, understand, and manage emotions. Likewise, be there for your team. Be open to hearing, and sometimes receiving, negative emotions. And then navigate those emotions in healthy, productive ways.
As a recap of this episode, I discussed healthy and unhealthy emotional cultures, the complexity of emotional vulnerability, and some tips for managing emotions. To me, one of the strongest indicators of a healthy versus unhealthy emotional culture, as well as someone’s maturity at managing emotions, is how emotional vulnerability is responded to. That’s why I said this episode is about emotional vulnerability – it’s kind of a litmus test, a measuring stick, of emotional maturity for people and organizations. If you respond to vulnerability poorly, or don’t allow it in any way, then that’s unhealthy or immature. If you respond to vulnerability well, and allow for it, then that’s healthier and more mature.
Not to over-simplify what I just discussed, but all of these topics really come down to a combination of empathy and situational awareness. Empathy that stressful work situations and overworking employees often create negative emotions. Empathy that negativity is often met with negativity. Empathy that limiting and constraining employees in various ways can hurt mental and physical health.
Likewise, situational awareness allows you to read people better and respond to situations more appropriately. Could be a conflict in your team. Could be an employee opening up to you about something very personal. Could be that you just received really bad news during a team meeting. All of these require a certain level of situational awareness to determine how best to navigate each situation for the healthiest outcomes both in the moment and in the future.
If you’d like to read about more results we found in our research on this topic, check out our e-book entitled Emotions in the Workplace.
And that’s it for this episode! Join me next time on Manager Mysteries & Mishaps, where I’ll have the very first interview for this show.