I started a new job a few years back. On my first day, the CEO and I went out to coffee to chat about my role, expectations, and strategy. As we sat down to sip our flat whites, I asked the CEO if he wouldn’t mind if I shared some aspects about my life before we got into the nuts and bolts of the new job. I shared how excited I was to be working for a young, growing company in an industry I was eager to learn lots about.
I also shared my personal journey that led me to this role, a journey not spelled out on a resume. Specifically, I shared that two years prior, my younger brother unexpectedly passed away, and that his death rocked me in an indescribable and unfathomable way. I shared that though I was fully ready, excited and able to take on this big new role, I still was hit every so often with waves of sadness and anger. Given how closely we would be working together, I wanted the CEO to know that there would be times when certain emotions would emerge, and that what I learned from my last job was that bottling those emotions up did far more harm than good. I wanted to bring my authentic and whole self to the organization - and that whole self sometimes included lots of feelings.
The CEO teared up as I shared my story and we laughed at the thought of an employee walking by to find us both blubbering on my first day of work. But, the overall message was met with openness and appreciation that emotions are a part of who we are and whether we like it or not, emotions come into play in the workplace.
That conversation was incredibly scary for me. Since I first entered the workforce, I was repeatedly taught to always have a poker face,* to never cry at work, and if I did, gosh forbid, tear up, to immediately run into a bathroom stall, cry there, and then pull myself together. As I got more senior in my career, things became a bit easier: I could shut my door and cry silently behind my laptop. But, over time, I realized that not expressing the emotions I was truly feeling made things far worse: a slight frustration with a manager turned into simmering long-term resentment; a sadness from a personal situation took me mentally away from meetings and left the impression of me being aloof or disinterested. When I became a manager, I started noticing my direct reports experiencing the same: at times they were trying so hard to hold it together and not show anger, frustration, or even glee that they looked physically uncomfortable.
We’ve been conditioned to keep feelings out of the workplace. But, to be a great manager, it’s important to understand why emotions impact your team members and how you can approach these emotions.
Emotions in the workplace could fill a whole book (in fact they have!), but I’m going to focus on two concepts that make emotions a complicated issue at work: emotional contagion and emotional labor. These two concepts highlight an important emotional paradox: it’s important to share and be authentic with your emotions in the workplace; but, emotions (both negative and positive) spread quickly and one team member’s feelings can deeply impact the rest of the team.
Two Funky Emotional Concepts and The Paradox They Present
Emotional Labor: emotional labor is the mental and psychological “work” we do to regulate our emotions and in particular, emotional labor occurs when our inward emotions don’t match our outward emotions. For example, if I have had a really bad morning and I’m internally angry, but then I have to greet customer after customer with a huge smile at the Starbucks where I work, my body and mind are doing emotional labor. It’s “work” when your outward and inward emotions don’t match.
Emotional labor is a really important concept to understand as a manager because those employees that are expected to do a high amount of emotional labor (think customer service or client service jobs) experience higher degrees of burn out. So, if you have an employee who is constantly suppressing his inner emotions and not sharing his true feelings in the workplace, he is doing a huge amount of emotional labor and is at risk of burn-out.
Think about how much better you’ve felt (as embarrassing as it may have been) when you accidentally cried in front of your boss. You released the emotion and were then able to move on, most likely feeling a little lighter and much more able to focus on the task at hand.
But, before you totally upend your company culture to talk about feelings all the time and encourage brooding, explicit contempt, or untethered giddiness, there’s a rub...and it comes in the form of emotional contagion.
Emotional Contagion: emotional contagion is the immediate and subconscious spreading of emotions from person to person. Think Outbreak but with happiness, annoyance, or fear as the virus. So patient zero walks into a team meeting carrying the burden of her missing cat. She’s totally bummed and walks in with shoulders slumped, doesn’t make much eye contact, and talks in a low energy, slow way. Well, immediately and subconsciously, the other team members “catch” these emotions from her and start mimicking her behavior. The otherwise upbeat weekly team meeting feels like a total drag and a total downer. The team leaves the meeting and spreads this emotion to other people they come into contact throughout the day.
Why is this important to understand? It’s important to understand because you can quickly stop the negative spread of emotions (and easily induce a positive spread of emotions!) When you walk into a room with a huge smile on your face, guess what, people will likely smile back (usually inadvertently).
Okay - so that’s the emotional paradox: we want employees to express their true feelings, but we don’t always want the true feelings to impact the rest of the organization in a negative way. So what to do?
1. Well, first step is to make sure your team knows you are okay with them expressing their emotions. Ask them how they are - and truly be interested in a response other than “fine.” Model the behavior you hope to see and share when things aren’t going great for you from a feelings perspective, especially when you feel like it’s impacting your ability to work or manage.
2. Share with your team the concept of emotional contagion. Encourage your team to share in a meeting if they might be “off” and help your team to realize that they can help stop the spread of the negative emotion that might be spiraling out of control.
3. Celebrate successes and milestones that have wonderful positive emotions, and acknowledge the situations that bring about strong negative feelings. Often we are so petrified of “upsetting” someone (especially at work) that we avoid a heartfelt “I’m sorry.” Guess what - it’s far worse to avoid the negative emotions than to accidentally trigger them!
4. And my last piece of advice? It comes from the church that was at the end of the street I grew up on. Every week, the church would put up a new quote on a little billboard. My favorite?
“Feelings are everywhere. Be gentle.”
Emotions are a tricky topic in the workplace - we are often encouraged to hide our feelings, often to the detriment of bringing our authentic selves to our jobs.
Emotional labor occurs when your inner emotions don’t match the outer emotions you need to express. When you have to do lots of emotional labor, you are at risk of burn-out.
Emotional contagion is the immediate and subconscious spread of emotions between people. Emotional contagion is particularly impactful on a team, where one little negative emotion can quickly create a collective negative emotion of the whole team.
As a manager, it’s important to be aware of these concepts, make sure your team members can express their true emotions, but also protect the organizations from quickly spreading negative emotions.
In sum: Feelings are everywhere. Be gentle.
*One of my first pieces of feedback as a consultant was that I was too expressive with my face, especially in client meetings, and even more so when the clients said things I disagreed with. The actionable behavior change that my manager suggested? Take conference calls in front of a mirror.