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Do you welcome emotions in the workplace?

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11 April 2019

You get the coaching clients you need, they say. So when a client comes to a coaching session and their issue is about "not showing my anger in the office" or "being less expressive as everybody knows what I am thinking" or "not letting this personal situation impact my performance" I can't help but wonder what the message is for me here.

So I looked at my records, and out of the one hundred coaching clients I've worked with so far, almost twenty percent of them have come to me with this issue or have even set them as goals for the entire coaching process. Usually, I dive deep into the 'real' reason behind their reasons for this and, usually, they are scared, ashamed or worried about the negative perception that others can have about them showing their emotions in the workplace.

In a world where we are trying to make machines more emotional, we are also telling humans to be less emotional in a place where they spend at least one third of their lives. So yes, maybe machines will outsmart us in the end.

And what is funny is that nowadays, everyone knows about emotions, as they play a key role in human interactions. A huge progress has been made in terms of improving emotional language. We teach what emotions are, there are nice movies and kids' books about them, and so people are getting better at understanding their feelings. In fact, we have included emoticons in our digital life to better convey what we really want to express. A trend that started in 1648, by the way.

The result is that everybody in any corporation will tell you that we are allowed to have emotions. Of course!

The tricky part comes when we talk about fully expressing and dealing with these emotions, ours and other people's. It is remarkable how, out of these hundred clients, none have asked me to help them reduce how much they laugh, or their excitement, or even their exhilaration when they have reached a goal or have been promoted. No, it is usually about anger, disappointment or sadness. Crying when we are scared or sad is as natural as laughing at something funny. It is our natural -this bears emphasizing, natural- response to an external stimulus. We all know the theory. But society only encourages or allows half of this natural response: the nicer side, the one that’s easier to handle, the one that creates a happier environment.

This makes me wonder if we’re only doing half of the work when we talk about expressing and managing emotions in the workplace. Maybe that is what’s next. A good metaphor came in the form of the ‘Do Re Mi’ song from The Sound of Music. Just imagine Julie Andrews telling the Von Trapp kids: hey, there is this thing called music, you compose it with seven notes, and it is beautiful when you play it and sing it. But please, by all means, don't sing it aloud. Just keep it in your mind, maybe hum it when you are alone in your room, but that's it. Music is loud sometimes and that might bother others. So no singing aloud in the mountains, in the streets of Salzburg, or at the concert at the end of the movie. Scrap all that. I can imagine how this plot wouldn't have gotten Robert Wise any Oscars. Wink emoticon. Perhaps you’re smiling now? Good for you! You're human!

Let's leave beautiful Austria and get back to the workplace. So are we saying that once you cross your office's threshold, it is ok to mentally sing the song and enjoy it, as long as nobody has to listen to your voice, in case it might be ugly and bother others? I believe that in a way, we are. I believe we all have a long way to go until we can fully express ourselves and be with other people's emotions 'aloud' in the workplace.

Because let's face it, it is not easy to be with somebody that is angry, or sad, or scared... It is not easy, in this problem-solving world, to realize that we might not need to ‘solve’ their emotions, or better yet, the triggers for these emotions. If your colleague doesn’t get the promotion they believe they deserve, they might want to cry. So maybe it is just about dealing with these emotions, not fixing them, not making them wrong, and not hugging people because their crying makes us feel awkward, just empathizing with them. But they don’t teach this in schools. Or do they?

In my case, I have a hard time dealing with people that are scared -especially when it comes to top executives that are impacting their teams-, and I scold myself a thousand times when I've snapped at somebody because what they did or said made me angry. I am lucky to have some friends at work that help me deal with it and can be with me in these times, and for other people it is upsetting and unpleasant. Both are as human as I am. It is just about realizing that I’m allowed to sing aloud, regardless of my voice being nice or ugly, and deciding from a conscious place whether I want to sing or not. It is about my awareness of the impact of my actions, as well as the impact of my lack of actions when I decide to “mute” myself, because maybe there is a hidden impact that could be much worse than shedding a tear or raising my voice from time to time.

The good news? Allowing emotions in the workplace gets better with age, and rank, according to this study. So maybe in this case, older means wiser…

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