Why it’s okay to get emotional at work

Emotions in the Workplace, No Hard Feelings, organisational psychology, future of work, gender stereotypes

“We often forget we are humans,” says Mollie West Duffy, over the phone to me from New York. “We have feelings all the time and yet between 9am and 5pm we don’t supposedly have them.”

Duffy, who’s promoting her new book about emotion in the workplace, No Hard Feelings, is referring to the tendency to act like our emotions don’t exist once we step inside our place of work. Although it’s popular to think a stiff upper lip may get you further ahead in the office, Duffy thinks it is more likely to lead to poor decision making, lower productivity and health problems.

Duffy, who co-wrote the book with illustrator and design consultant Liz Fosslien, knows this from personal experience. Both women were diagnosed with work stress-related health problems after they started their careers, by keeping their feelings locked in.


Emotional decision-making

Research shows, Duffy explains, that decision making in the workplace is based on our emotions whether we are aware of them or not. “Decision making we think of as something completely rational, yet the science proves that it is not completely rational,” she says. “The best thing we can do is try to become a little more aware of how our emotions are affecting us.”

One emotion Duffy believes we should be paying more attention to at work is envy. People don’t often pay attention to this emotion, says Duffy, as there is a stigma around it, but its usefulness lies in the way it can tell you what you wish you had.

Duffy also recommends honing into anxiety and regret when making decisions. People should ask themselves how they would feel if they didn’t make a decision in a month, five months or a year from now. If they feel regret, it indicates that perhaps more importance should be placed on that decision.

Excitement is another emotion to keep an eye on – a wave we might want to try to ride out before making a decision. We might make decisions to hastily if we only use excitement as the gauge, Duffy explains.


Emotions are infectious

But whether they’re positive or negative, we should pay attention to what our emotions are telling us at work. “By ignoring our feelings at work, we are overlooking important data and risking preventable mistakes,” says Duffy. “If you are ignoring how you feel and how others feel, you might send out emails that cause unnecessary anxiety.  Your work is not going to be as meaningful if you are not opening up yourself to that side of yourself.”

Duffy, whose regular job is as an organisational designer, believes that as our jobs become more collaborative, complex and stressful, it will be our emotions that will help us navigate the changes. Emotions are so powerful they are contagious, she tells me. “This has actually been proven: that emotions can go viral,” she says. “There is a study that shows that if I have a nasty co-worker and I get grumpy and I go home irritated because of this and snap at my husband, he can actually catch my bad mood.

“If he then goes to work the next day grumpy, he can then put his colleagues in a bad mood. One bad attitude from a col-league can spread to other colleagues.”

If you’re feeling down, Duffy recommends taking a short amount of time out to do the things you need to do to get yourself back on track.

When it comes to difficult conversations about problematic issues in the workplace, Duffy believes it is important not to rush into them. Rather, wait until people are calm before having a conversation about how the situation made you feel. She points out difficult conversations should not be avoided completely as this denies all parties the opportunity to improve the situation.


Not everyone feels the same way

It’s also vital to be aware that everyone has a different communication style, Duffy says, and to take into perspective things such as cultural background, gender, age and levels of introversion or extroversion.

“All these can make a huge difference in how we communicate,” she says. “Gender stereotypes can hurt women. If women speak with confidence they are often told they are being aggressive and if they don’t then they are told to be more confident.

“Women [often] try to avoid being aggressive. So they use qualifiers. Women say things like ‘I am not certain’, or use hedging words like ‘might’, ‘but’ or ‘I think’, and frame requests as questions, whereas men tend to dominate the conversation by talking over each other.”

She advises women to lean into that confidence, and avoid questions, hedging words and other deflective strategies. Men, on the other hand, should refrain from talking over people, and give them credit for the things they say.


Emotions and the bottom line

Studies have also found that organisations where compassion and gratitude are encouraged don’t tend to have a high staff turnover. From the point of view of savings and productivity, Duffy says there is a good argument for firms to focus on emotional wellbeing.

Research has shown the most ruthless hedge fund managers brought in less money than those that didn’t have this attitude. People who have rude or aggressive bosses also have a harder time retaining important information. This is likely to lead to bad decisions.

“When we feel like we are supported by our colleagues we tend to stick around longer and we were better able to cope with job stress and were better employees,” she says.

But there is still a lot to be done for the workplace to really embrace emotions. Over the last couple of decades, Duffy points out, the focus has been on emotional intelligence. But most of the research on this until has been on emotional intelligence for leaders, ignoring the possibility it might be useful for every employee. This seems crazy, says Duffy, who believes this type of training should start the moment people begin a job.

There are a lot of benefits to be had by embracing emotions at work. They are something organisations need to recognise and understand, as if they don’t they risk not only damaging their staff’s wellbeing but also the bottom line.

© Business Reporter 2021

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