Being emotional in the workplace

Written by
Ally Yates

20 Apr 2017

20 Apr 2017 • by Ally Yates

Hidden emotions

We Brits are renowned for our ‘stiff upper lip’, keeping a lid on our emotions. We take a perverse pleasure in exercising our restraint. It’s a badge of honour for many, worn with pride. For those who dare to reveal their softer side, they are often accused of ‘being wet’ or are urged to ‘toughen up’ or ‘act like a man’ – whatever that may mean. The paradox is that there is mounting evidence to the contrary, extolling the value of expressing feelings in the workplace.  And with good reason, since your emotions influence much more than you might imagine: for example, how you build relationships, handle conflict, manage stress, and create a productive work environment.   As well as being conveyed through your body language and facial expressions, emotions play a role in influencing your behaviour.  Articulating these feelings can have a very positive impact on the mood of any interaction.  

The better the team members connect emotionally, the better the performance of the team. Teams where disharmony exists risk getting side-tracked by their interpersonal issues. Expressing your feelings can contribute to the emotional connection within a team and reduce the social distance.  In their pursuit of the ‘perfect team’, Google found that high-performing teams all had high “average social sensitivity”, which includes expressing and intuiting feelings. 

Some organisational cultures inhibit the expression of emotional language, resulting in a lack of positive role modelling in emotional expression. Another argument I hear for keeping emotions under wraps (more often from guys than from women) is that “it’s a sign of weakness.” At which point my heart sinks. 

There are two behaviours that can help you to constructively express more of your feelings:

  • Giving feelings and open behaviour.
  • Giving feelings involves an expression of one's feeling about the current situation, as in:

“I’m uncomfortable that we haven’t explored all the possibilities.”
“I’m excited about the progress we’re making”

This behavioural concept originates from research into effective negotiators, who were   found to use such behaviour to express both positive and negative emotions about how the negotiations were progressing.  

In interactions generally, it can be helpful to voice how you’re feeling about the way the work is progressing, be that the task aspect or the dynamics of the group. Such expression, which can include both positive and negative feelings, helps those involved gauge their progress. This can be particularly useful when working in a multi-national group where fluency in the company’s adopted language can vary significantly.  

Emotions are also contagious, so if you bring expressions of positive affect to your interactions it’s likely other people will catch the bug. Furthermore, there’s an ever-growing body of research linking the expression of feelings to establishing and increasing trust in relationships.

Open behaviour is the non-defensive admission of mistakes or shortcomings...

“I’m sorry, maybe I haven’t thought it through well enough.”
“That’s probably my fault. I was making an informed guess.”

In his seminal work Good to Great, Jim Collins describes the factors that differentiate great companies from merely good ones. One of these factors is ‘level 5 leadership’, where the leaders of great companies are described as having a ‘paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will’. The humility is characterised as mild-mannered, self-effacing, and understated. These leaders look to give credit where credit is due, rather than claim it for themselves. When it comes to errors or mistakes, they take responsibility rather than apportion blame elsewhere.

“Open” is the behaviour that best demonstrates this humility. And, like Collins, we’ve found its use to be a differentiator between average and skilful performers. Open behaviour is given to admitting mistakes (“I’m sorry I messed up there”) and revealing shortcomings (“I have to confess I didn’t really understand it”). Far from being a sign of weakness, open behaviour reveals a lack of vanity and a willingness to take personal responsibility for the issue or inadequacy.  If you are in a more junior position, using open behaviour can create an opportunity for learning and demonstrating improvement. When used by a manager or leader, it can be a helpful leveller. Admitting you’ve got something wrong reveals fallibility and helps you appear more human. More often than not, your fallibility will cause people to respond positively rather than critically. Where fault is not acknowledged by the ‘offender’, this typically frustrates others in the interaction. 

I observed the positive impact of these behaviours in my work with banks and insurance companies. Later, I used the same behaviours when, as a business development consultant, I had to negotiate long-term commercial arrangements with clients. As I began to do more and more observations of group work and multi-stakeholder interactions, I saw similarities between the profiles of successful negotiators and those of successful group leaders and members, particularly in the use of giving feelings and open behaviour.  

Behaviours are within our control. We can consciously exercise a choice to change the way we behave. Exercising that choice through using giving feelings and open behaviour is proof that where there’s sense there’s feeling.