Strategies for Managing Difficult Emotions at Work

A person sitting at a desk surrounded by figures representing police brutality, systemic racism, COVID, record unemployment, and quarantine.Illustration by @LizandMollie on Instagram

Whether it’s productivity guilt, uncertainty, pandemic anxiety, burnout, regret, or all of the above, we usually don't know how to talk about what we're going through at work, much less handle it. Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy, the duo behind the bestselling book No Hard Feelings and the wildly popular @LizandMollie Instagram, discuss surprising science, personal stories, and strategies for turning big emotions into manageable ones shared in their new book Big Feelings.

Here are five takeaways from our conversation with Liz and Mollie on the Creative Confidence Podcast. Listen to the full episode to hear them talk about why it's good for business to bring emotions into the workplace, how to manage uncertainty and burnout, and skills and mindsets you can use to support your team in handling our most difficult emotions.


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1. Bringing emotion into work can be productive.

“We’re not saying work should become an emotional free for all…but it is helpful to know that emotions can come up in the workplace and we can move through them in a productive way.” — Mollie West Duffy

When you think of emotions at work, you might imagine people crying and tensions escalating. Mollie gives an example of a workshop that she was leading where conflict came up. After someone shared an idea, another person said something negative. The first person responded even more negatively, and tensions rose. Normally, a team might choose to move on, or risk things escalating further.

But in that situation, Mollie facilitated and encouraged the team to stay in the moment, setting the right structures to help people move through conflict in a productive way. Afterward, there was an acknowledgement of what happened, which helped people realize that expressing their emotions wasn’t as bad as they thought and built confidence to do it that way in the future.

Two venn diagrams, one with a small shaded area representing the ideas people share when they don’t feel belonging and one with a large shaded area representing the ideas people share when they do.Illustration by @LizandMollie on Instagram


2. We all have different levels of comfort with uncertainty.

“Instead of frantically running yourself into the ground because you’re so anxious, what are clear next steps you can take to give yourself some confidence?” — Liz Fosslien

One common feeling that we deal with in the workplace is uncertainty. When we talk about uncertainty, it’s often really about the anxiety it produces. As a leader, it’s important to know that people’s tolerance for uncertainty varies and to acknowledge if you’re not sure what’s going to happen. Liz also recommends putting in place a plan from which you’ll deviate, an approach taken by NASA that allows you to plan and think through future scenarios but also sets the right expectations in a world that’s constantly shifting.

Stairs symbolizing a set plan, and a squiggly line symbolizing what actually happens.Illustration by @LizandMollie on Instagram

Liz and Mollie created a short uncertainty assessment to help people evaluate their tolerance for uncertainty. There are three types of people—uncertainty seekers, uncertainty balancers, and uncertainty avoiders. Understanding yourself can help you make better decisions about your work and allow others to communicate with you more effectively.


3. You have to know what’s causing burnout to address it.

“If people are feeling ineffective, take a moment and look back at how far you’ve come.” — Liz Fosslien

Another common emotion experienced at work is burnout, and according to Liz, there are three different drivers. The first is feeling overextended and having too much on your plate. The second is feeling disengaged, with a lack of meaning or connection. With this type of burnout, you might have good work-life balance, but you don’t feel connected to the people around you or don’t believe in the company’s mission. The third cause of burnout is feeling ineffective. This is when you’re putting in effort but not getting anywhere, often in the midst of uncertainty and chaos. Liz and Mollie created a burnout assessment that analyzes your own personal burnout profile.

A woman pushing a boulder up a hill with the description “just because you can endure” and another woman walking away from the boulder with the description “doesn’t mean you have to.”Illustration by @LizandMollie on Instagram

Figuring out what’s causing you to feel burnout can allow you to address it. For example, if you’re overextended, you could try to reprioritize your workload or take time off. If you’re disengaged, you could spend time together as a team to rally and connect. And if you’re feeling ineffective, you can reflect on your progress and learnings. Liz notes that there are structural forces that make certain individuals more at risk for burnout, such as those who work multiple jobs or aren’t able to take time off.


4. It’s on the organization—not just the individual—to create an environment that supports resilience.

“It’s easier to be resilient when your environment makes it easy.” — Liz Fosslien

Oftentimes, resilience is presented as something for people to figure it out on their own, but it’s important to make wellbeing a priority on the organization level. Teams can create the conditions for resilience, with norms to support mental health and wellness. Liz shares how when her father-in-law passed away, her manager was able to help set up her bereavement leave because she was trained in the policies and knew there would be organization support. That made it so that the onus wasn’t on Liz to figure out the process for taking the time she needed.

A manager with an umbrella protecting figures representing defined roles, clear expectations, work-life balance, and stable achievable goals from rain clouds representing unclear priorities, unnecessary meetings, massive uncertainty, last-minute chaos, and ridiculous requests.Illustration by @LizandMollie on Instagram

Mollie also describes the experience of a former colleague who was working from Singapore for a project. While she was there, she realized that the team there approached wellbeing as a collective practice, from having lunch to meditating together. After she returned to the US, she saw the contrast of people having to be responsible for taking care of themselves on their own. Instead of putting all of the emphasis on the individual, organizations should create the right environment for wellness.


5. Approach difficult emotions with curiosity.

“It’s not helpful to label emotions as good or bad—they just are. But what can we learn from them?” — Mollie West Duffy

Mollie says that when you’re approaching difficult conversations, it can be helpful to get curious. Instead of going in with assumptions and starting with your own perspective of what happened, start by asking the other person what their thoughts and feelings are. That can create the psychological safety needed for them to share. Approach conversations with mutual respect and a shared goal, and stay in dialogue rather than shutting down.

When you find yourself experiencing a challenging emotion, try saying “I’m having a strong reaction right now. I’ll come back to you about this tomorrow.” According to Mollie, it’s often good to talk about emotions when you’re not overly emotional, and this gives you the space to react and figure out what you’re feeling. For more resources on working through hard conversations at work, Mollie recommends reading the books Difficult Conversations and Crucial Conversations.


About The Speakers

Liz Fosslien
Co-Author and Illustrator, Big Feelings

Liz Fosslien is the co-author and illustrator of the WSJ bestseller No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotion at Work and Big Feelings: How to Be Okay When Things Are Not Okay. She leads the content and communications teams at Humu, where she helps leaders and their teams take small steps towards profound improvement. Prior to joining Humu, Liz designed and led workshops for executives at Google, Facebook, and Nike on how to create inclusive cultures. Her writing and data visualization projects have appeared in CNN, The Economist, The Financial Times, and NPR. Liz starts every day by eating plain Greek yogurt and reading academic abstracts.


Mollie West Duffy
Co-Author, Big Feelings

Mollie West Duffy is the co-author of the WSJ bestseller No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotion at Work and Big Feelings: How to Be Okay When Things Are Not Okay. She was previously an Organizational Design Lead at global innovation firm IDEO, and a research associate for the Dean of Harvard Business School. She has worked with companies of all sizes on organizational development, leadership development, and workplace culture. Her writing has been featured in Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, and Entrepreneur, and she’s taught design courses at Stanford and USC. Mollie loves personality tests.

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