The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work
As humans, we’re inherently emotional. There’s no way to turn it off. Even if it feels uncomfortable to share our emotions at work, Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy, authors of the Wall Street Journal bestselling book No Hard Feelings, argue embracing our emotions makes us better at our jobs. So instead of trying to suppress emotion at work, the authors say we need to know how to express emotion in a way that’s beneficial to ourselves and others.
“All good things start when we acknowledge what we’re feeling. And that begins with letting yourself feel and identifying the emotion,” says Liz.
In this Creative Confidence Podcast conversation, Liz and Mollie share their perspective on the role of emotions at work, outline a framework for making better decisions by tapping into our emotions, and explain how to move from emotional intelligence to emotional agility.
Emotions in context: It looks different for everyone
When writing their book, Liz and Mollie set out to cover a wide range of experiences and identities, but acknowledge their work isn’t all inclusive because everyone brings a different context and lived experience to their own work, including gender identity, cultural norms, and more. As white females sitting in a place of racial privilege, Liz and Mollie recognize they have a specific lived experience relative to their identities, as we all do. They share their own perspective, and also intentionally spoke with people of different races, ages, and genders when doing research in order to point people to more in-depth resources and amplify the voices of those who have various backgrounds.
One insight that they surfaced is that research on emotion at work is largely based on binary male and female gender roles, which don’t represent many people. They encourage you to apply this information to whatever gender role you identify with.
They also recognize that there are vast cultural differences across the globe. They recommend the book The Culture Map, by Erin Meyer, for a look at how different cultures and countries fall on the communication spectrum on eight scales, including how emotionally expressive or unexpressive they are and how much a culture avoids or is comfortable with confrontation.
Understanding the differences in communication style between cultures can help raise our self-awareness and be more mindful of the context others are coming from. Friction is often a product of not acknowledging and respecting these differences. One way to do that is to set expectations about your own personal work style. For example, “I have a direct style of communication. I wanted to name that up front. It’s not personal to you” or, “I tend to appreciate time to process conversations, and there might be instances where I prefer to circle back on a topic.”
The way we express emotion can be thought of as a spectrum of less emotive to more emotive. It’s important to note there is no right or normal level of emotional expression—it’s different for everyone, and can also be influenced by one’s culture, industry, and work environment. Liz and Mollie note that sharing some emotion helps us connect and builds trust, especially for leaders, but sharing too much emotion at an inappropriate time and place can undermine a leader’s credibility.
Liz and Mollie encourage the use of selective vulnerability to find a good balance in the amount of emotion you share at work. Selective vulnerability means pausing to decide which emotions to share that would be helpful to those around you. A good question to ask yourself is ‘How would I feel if the person I’m talking to shared this with me right now?’
Make better decisions by tapping into emotion
“One of the most negative things we’re taught is that you have emotion on one side and rationality and reason on the other,” Liz says. In reality, emotions can be very rational. Fear of a snake, for example, helps protect you from a venomous bite. So while it may seem beneficial to cut your emotions out of the decision making process, they add a lot of value.
“If we don't acknowledge what we're feeling, it makes it much more likely that the emotion is going to stick its tentacles into our decision without us being aware of it,” Liz says. “And then that might bias us.”
So, what’s the right approach? Liz and Mollie created a checklist to help you parse relevant emotions from extraneous ones when making tough decisions. More details on this checklist are in their book No Hard Feelings.
Manage Your Mind Decision-Making Checklist
- Write out your options — What are all the possible decisions you could make? For example, if you’re trying to decide if you should take a job offer your choices might be to take the new job, remain in your old job, or quit while you keep searching.
- List everything you’re feeling — Excitement, frustration, hesitation, etc.
- Identify irrelevant emotions — You may be feeling tired because you haven’t had your morning coffee yet. So tired is an emotion that’s not relevant to your job decision.
- Link the remaining relevant emotions to specific options — If you’re feeling anxious, is that related to taking the new job or remaining in your current position?
- Ask what, not why — Often people ask why they’re feeling a certain way. But the easier question to ask is what: I’m excited. What am I excited about?
- Make a decision — Now that you’ve identified relevant emotions and used them to inform your choice, make a call.
This process works because instead of suppressing emotions, you realize which emotions are helpful in any situation and tap into what they’re telling you. “That’s when you can make the most rational, reasonable decision,” Liz says. “Because it’s being informed by the most relevant emotions.”
Emotional agility: Leveling up from emotional intelligence
Emotional intelligence has gotten a lot of attention, and for good reason. Liz and Mollie define it as the ability to understand what you’re feeling and what others are feeling. In the workplace it helps you relate to others and lead with compassion. In addition, emotional fluency is the capacity to not only understand what you’re feeling, but use specific language to communicate that feeling well.
Liz and Mollie say those skills are critical for success at work, and the next step is emotional agility—not only understanding emotion and having the language to describe it, but knowing when and how to communicate those emotions. Mollie says to think of it this way: “I need to understand how I feel, but also who to tell how I feel.” Try this exercise for building your emotional agility.
Emotional agility activity
- Notice your emotion — This feels obvious, but we often push feelings aside at work, only to have the emotion rear up again later. Noticing them in the moment allows you to do something about it.
- Label the emotion — Get very specific about how you’re feeling. If you’re anxious, maybe it’s anxiety around a looming deadline because you know you don’t perform well under pressure. Being more specific gives colleagues more information to react to.
- Understand the need and express it — Emotion is often better heard by colleagues if you can frame it as a need, like the need to do well on a presentation in order to secure funding for your team’s project. This can be especially helpful in cultures where expressing emotion doesn’t feel appropriate.
If you take one piece of advice from Liz and Mollie, let it be this: get curious about your emotions at work. Whether you’re comfortable sharing about them or not, start to ask why certain feelings are brought up for you.
“Suppressing our emotions isn’t healthy. That creates more anxiety and stress within our worklife,” Mollie says. Instead of pushing those feelings away, how might you tap into them to empower yourself and unlock your full potential?
Learn how to create an environment where your team is comfortable collaborating across diverse perspectives and generating new ideas to reach better solutions through our online course Cultivating Creative Collaboration.
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