We spend a lot of time keeping emotions out of the workspace.
There are good reasons to do so. We need to make rational decisions and don’t want our emotions to interfere with what needs to be done. I’ve witnessed a couple of people throwing a tantrum at work and I’m sure that you don’t want to be that person.
So yes, not letting your emotions run the show is normally good advice.
We all know this is tricky. And I’m sorry to bring bad news, but scientists tell us that in fact it’s impossible.
Emotions always run the show.
We can’t get rid of them.
We can’t choose the emotions we experience.
Our emotions shape how we experience the world.
If I’m upset during a ten-day holiday in the Alps because my car’s unexpectedly broken down, it’s very likely that nothing my friends tell me will change how I feel about it.
And if I spend my holiday upset and mad about it, my experience will be totally different from that of my partner, who wasn’t mad for more than five minutes as he knew the insurance would sort it.
Same event, different feelings, different experiences.
Working with difficult conversations and disagreements also involves working with our emotions. To do so we need to let go of the illusion that we can control them, and instead aim to get to know them.
So let me ask you, at what level of emotional awareness are you ready to work?
Do you want to work with your inner narratives? With your feelings? With your mental models? With how you act?
The way we communicate is influenced by the narratives we bring, which create certain feelings and make us think and act in certain ways.
If one of your colleagues submits a report late, your response is going to be determined by your narrative, your feelings and your thoughts.
If your narrative is that real professionalism means never being late and you firmly believe that those who are late are lazy and incompetent, when someone submits a report late you automatically feel angry and upset.
What your colleague has done has affected your narrative and who you think you are. And very likely if you’re mad, you’ll internally blame your colleague, and the words you choose will include blame not matter how hard you try to hide your feelings.
What do organisations do to address this combination of narrative, feelings, thoughts and action? They normally take one of these three options:
Option 1: Regulate the outside and try to keep emotions out. Some organisations and teams create norms for everything; processes, rules, and policies that address even toilet breaks. The message is clear for everybody: you must follow the rules. If something goes wrong, you need to find the person responsible and they must face the consequences. As the emphasis is on compliance, such an environment tends to create a culture where blaming and finger-pointing is the norm.
Option 2: Regulate the interaction to keep emotions in control. These organisations and teams want to communicate effectively. There’s nothing wrong with this: the problem is how they do it. As the emphasis is on controlling how we speak, misunderstandings and conflicts are removed from the surface but remain alive in different forms such as lack of collaboration, excessive individualism, gossiping, and unethical behaviour when nobody’s looking. Creativity and innovation are replaced by too many processes and requirements and very polished ways of speaking, so nobody dares to point out what’s going on in case they offend somebody in the room.
Option 3: Commit to changing narratives and mindsets and invest in emotional awareness. These organisations work to improve mindsets: the way people think and the narratives they bring to work. They know that while we can’t control our emotions, we can shape how we feel by creating a different mindset and narrative about the work that needs to be done. These organisations and teams encourage a learning approach to conflict and disagreement, and inspire curiosity so that people feel safe to contribute and disagree.
Making an effort to understand and acknowledge our emotions rather than suppressing them or ignoring them is a far more effective way of eliciting the kind of behaviour we want to see.