Being emotional, and being human, at work

Emotions at work are on public display these days, whether it’s Serena slamming her tennis racquet to the ground or Kavanaugh yelling at the Senate during his job interview. It makes for interesting news, for sure. And it makes me, a Leadership Coach, think more about the role of emotions at work.

Daniel Goleman’s seminal work on Emotional Intelligence gave HR professionals a way to talk about “soft skills”. EQ frameworks and assessments followed. The EQi 2.0 includes these factors: self-perception, self-expression, interpersonal skills, decision-making skills and stress management.

Stress is included because stress, of course, often intensifies our emotions. For many people, work is stressful. Add the commitment of a lifetime career which requires an inordinate investment in training (sports) or education (law) and the stress goes up.

We ask a lot of ourselves and others at work. We want full engagement, over-the-top enthusiasm, unquestioning commitment to organizational values, purpose and mandate. We want heart, as well as mind and hands. Are we also willing to make room for the emotions that are part of caring so much?

Gender stereotypes and cultural expectations play a role in how emotions are expressed. Remember when José Bautista of the Blue Jays flipped his bat in 2015? He was immediately criticized for not respected the rules of baseball. In a personal essay “Are you flipping kidding me?” he defended himself. José talked about being an expressively emotional person, who grew up in the Dominican Republic where, he said, “baseball is not a country club game. It’s our national pastime, and it comes packed with emotion.”  He also notes that baseball is more than a game, it’s a spectacle and entertainment for millions of viewers.

Fast-forward to Serena. A woman whose life has been tennis in the spotlight. Yes, she was losing and yes, she was frustrated. To ask her – at work – to play with passion but not show her passion, is a little much. One wonders, given the gender norms that are so prevalent, if she’d been criticized less had she cried? As we’ve seen watching the US Senate proceedings, we are reminded that the range of emotional expression accepted from men and women are extreme opposites. We may not like to see men rage, but at the same time male anger is often corelated to strong leadership.

Questions to Explore your Workplace Culture

We spend a lot of time at work, in situations that are stressful and fraught with emotion. To allow head, hand and heart to show up, its worth examining your culture. Ask: What is acceptable emotional expression where you work? Is it okay for people to openly express their feelings verbally and non-verbally? Do leaders model vulnerability, speaking about their own emotional reactions? If you celebrate success, do you also mourn failure? Is there too much emphasis on collegial behaviours and politeness – to the point of stifling expressions of disagreement?  When things get tough, and stress is high, are healthy and safe outlets available? Are aggressive women frowned upon, and sensitive men distrusted? When decisions are being made, is the emotional impact considered and allowed for? And, perhaps most important, is there forgiveness for being human at work?

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