Why you need to get in touch with your emotions at work
Many of the issues that clients bring to me under the umbrella of ‘leadership’ or ‘career’ challenges are not really so much career-related issues or professional difficulties at all. They are actually the same emotional and mindset issues that can arise in any situation, but which become more problematic for them at work because of the ‘mask’ that they are wearing in their role.
There are unspoken expectations that we should keep our emotions hidden in the workplace. This tends to lead people to have a self-imposed blanket ban on feeling emotions at work: far better to suppress what you’re feeling than allow anyone seeing you being vulnerable.
Emotions as feedback
This means that we can miss out on some useful feedback about how what we’re feeling affects our behaviour, communication, resilience and focus. We are more likely to suppress our emotions when things aren’t going so well. When a colleague you manage is performing poorly or making life difficult for themselves and others, and it’s down to you to deal with it, you may not process your emotions in ways that are effective to help you feel the confidence you need to deal with the situation. These unprocessed emotions can lead you into making poor decisions – or certainly ones that are less than optimal. They can even keep you from making a decision at all, and from following through with actions that you need to take to be effective as a leader.
Your leadership – in whatever context you lead, whether you’re a CEO or a team leader, a parent, carer or someone your family comes to with their problems – will be improved whenever you get in touch with and own your emotions. To do this, you need to be willing to feel rather than suppress your emotions. When we suppress our emotions, they tend to leak out anyway; we may think we’re hiding what we’re thinking, but whether it’s in word or body language, your colleagues will get some signal of your unprocessed emotional reality. You are an emotional being, whether you want to be or not.
How to tell when you’re being run by your emotions
When you’re avoiding making a phone call or having that conversation you know you need to have; blowing out that meeting you’re dreading; when you always turn up late to meet a certain person, it’s likely to be because there’s some emotion that you’re avoiding feeling. Maybe it’s a conflict you’re concerned might arise and you don’t feel confident about dealing with it; maybe it’s a person who makes you angry and you don’t want to show them that anger; or they make you feel inadequate, which is a feeling you want to avoid. Whatever it is, it’s running the show until you decide to drag it out into the light and examine why you’re feeling the way you do.
Emotions are information
Becoming aware of your emotions, and how they make you behave when you’re not aware of them, can make a huge difference to your career and your potential as a leader. Feeling angry is fine, but being angry and displaying anger at work is not fine and can have serious consequences about the way you are perceived and how motivated people are to perform for you as a result.
Emotional awareness means you can find strategies to manage your feelings and develop ways of expressing them in ways that are both acceptable and useful for the context you’re in, helping you achieve the outcomes you want.
To pluck an example: if, as a leader, you are someone who always takes control of meetings and speaks a lot because otherwise you start to feel frustrated, colleagues may come to see you as a control freak who has no respect for them. If you accept that you experience the emotion of frustration in these settings and that it is unpleasant and unhelpful, you could perhaps play with developing different options such as placing your trust in colleagues to run some meetings, and maybe move to just seeing the agenda and the minutes from the meeting but let them know they are free to invite you to attend if they need your input. This could develop your team and free you up to focus on something else.
Evolution shows us that the more flexibility we have to adapt, the more likely we are to survive. In business, this is also true. Of course, we are looking for more than survival: we are looking for excellence, purpose, fulfilment and rewards. Engaging with our emotions is how we can bring this about.
- Take your time: identify the emotion. Is it fear, anger, frustration – what is it?
- Understand where it comes from and how it has you behaving or feeling.
- Reconnect with the kind of leader and person you want to be, what you’re trying to achieve, and how you want to behave.
- Don’t try to suppress the emotion or not feel it; feel it and behave in the way you need to get the outcome you want; use your options.
When we’re feeling confident of our options in a situation, we are more agile and can nimbly try another approach to get the result we’re after.