When it comes to our emotions and our workplace’s we’re in a bind.
Display too much emotion, and we’re too emotional, unprofessional. Don’t display enough and we’re seen as cold and hard hearted. If we don’t know how to connect emotionally with people, we can’t inspire them or lead them effectively.
And if we let emotions rule we lose respect, can’t make tough decisions, and can’t give effective feedback.
Think for a moment of the worst boss you ever had. And now think of their general emotional tone. Chances are they were at one end of the spectrum or the other: either emotionally cold, distant and unapproachable, or emotionally volatile, prone to explosive rages, or moodiness - with their moods having everyone on eggshells. You feared them or disrespected them - or both - and probably left them as soon as you could.
And now think for a moment of the best boss you ever had and their emotional tone. Chances are they were probably somewhere in that sweet-spot in the middle, emotionally intelligent, warm, and approachable, but also emotionally well-regulated. They may not have talked overtly about emotions, but they clearly made space for feelings to be felt and didn’t expect you to be an unfeeling machine. You worked harder for them, went the extra mile, and did some of your best work for them.
Daniel Goleman’s pioneering work on emotional intelligence has really helped to change the conversation around emotions at work, and frame emotional intelligence as a core leadership skill. But time and time again I see people falling into the trap of thinking that emotional regulation and emotional intelligence are about only allowing oneself to feel “positive” or “good” emotions. Susan David succinctly calls this “toxic positivity.” This is the idea that if one is feeling anger, resentment, irritation, guilt, shame, rage, despair, sadness etc. these are bad, bad, bad and one should immediately be able to shift out of them.
The other thing I see time and again is people “tapping out” of these difficult emotions. Their most common comments are “If I allow myself to feel I’ll be overwhelmed. I’ll drown.”
Let me be clear: There are no good or bad emotions.
I’ll say that again.
Emotions are not positive or negative, good or bad. They just are.
At the most basic level all emotions are simply electrochemical compounds in our body. That’s it. There is no good or bad to them. They might feel more or less pleasant, more or less comfortable, but emotions just are.
I’ll risk a definitive statement: All our problems with emotional intelligence and regulation arise when we judge emotions rather than discern emotions; when we either refuse to feel them on the one hand or allow them to rule us on the other hand.
The problem is not what we feel. The problem is what we DO with what we feel, once we’ve truly discerned what we feel. And that discernment is a process.
So here are the three rules of what to DO with emotions that my years of training, coaching, personal experience, and reading of the research and best practices boil down to. The three rules that, collectively, can shift you to the emotional sweet spot.
Clearly, there is a lot more to each of these rules - but here they are at the high level to get you started.
Rule #1: Validate, validate, validate
The very first thing we are taught to do as coaches is to validate what the other person is feeling. We might think their perspective is dead wrong or that they are way overreacting. But they are feeling what they are feeling. That is their reality and their truth. Validation doesn’t mean we agree with them or even that we think they’re right. It just means that - from their perspective, given their experience, their values, and their stories - what they are feeling makes complete sense. And we would feel how they were feeling if we were in their shoes.
And this applies not only to other people’s emotions, but to our own too. When we judge our own emotions as good or bad, when we say we shouldn’t be angry, sad, depressed, lonely, frustrated or whatever, because “other people have it worse”, or because “I don’t have time for this”, or when we fear to feel what we feel because we fear we might be overwhelmed, we are invalidating our own experience.
Emotional invalidation is gaslighting. And it’s crazy-making. Literally. And it’s generally regarded as a form of abuse.
Validation, or rather the lack thereof, is where I see abrasive leaders get stuck. They either don’t even know what they’re feeling, or if they do, they blame everyone else for what they are feeling, and argue that whatever anyone else is feeling - they’re wrong and shouldn’t be feeling it. They take zero responsibility for their own emotions and offload them onto others. Then heap on the judgment when others react to their emotional offloading. It’s a toxic crap-shoot.
I have to do a lot of work with them to get them to the point of starting to see how they are not dealing with emotions effectively, and how doing so will help them, not hurt them, and increase theirs and others productivity, effectiveness and performance. (It’s a process, it takes time, but it is 100% possible).
Once I’ve got them there, I can teach them how to validate emotions. When they first attempt to validate, their initial unskillful attempts often land really badly. They can come across as manipulative and insincere, or even patronizing. And then we need to lean even harder into the importance of emotions - as of course it takes courage to keep on going at that point. But that’s exactly what they need to do. Because every master was once a disaster.
It is an acquired skill to be masterful at validation. I certainly flunk it sometimes. But when I do it right, it's the gift that keeps on giving. Because when we validate our own emotions we feel heard, and now we can listen to others. And when we validate others emotions, they feel heard, and now they can listen to us.
Rule #2: Feels the feels
Strong, difficult emotions feel terrible. They feel overwhelming and scary. We feel we are going to drown in a river of despair, or are terrified at our explosive, murderous rage. There are very good reasons anger is so feared. The atrocities and horrors it can unleash at home, in the workplace and in wars are horrendous.
But we cannot selectively feel. When we numb the dark, we numb the light. If we want to feel joy, we also need to be prepared to feel anger, fear, despair and sadness.
Feeling our feels does not mean acting on our emotions (that’s rule #3). Feeling our emotions simply means actually allowing ourselves to feel them in our bodies.
At the biological level, emotions are combinations of electrochemicals in our brain and blood. If we were simply to simply let our emotions be, to come and go as they do, and not amplify them either through resisting feeling them, or looping into a cascading thought-emotion spiral, the process would last six seconds.
“That’s how long it takes for each burst of electrochemicals, from the time it's produced in the hypothalamus, to be completely broken down and reabsorbed back into our body. If we’re feeling something for longer than six seconds, we are – at some level – choosing to recreate and refuel those feelings.” (Six Seconds, 7 Amazing Facts About Emotions).
And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s called being human.
But with any biological process there’s a beginning, a middle and an end. Just like a tunnel. There’s the first rush of feeling. That gut punch to the stomach of shock or fear. That involuntary gasp of surprise. That sudden flush of rage. We enter the emotions tunnel.
But to get to the other side of the tunnel, we have to go through the middle of it. We actually have to feel what we are feeling.
And this is where I see emotionally aware and sensitive people get the most stuck. Because the middle of the tunnel for strong, difficult emotions is dark, and scary. The light behind you is rapidly receding, and you can’t see the light at the other end yet. So you tap out. You numb, you suppress, you binge watch, you eat, you drink, you work and work and work.
When I guide my clients through the tunnel, they are consistently amazed at the relief they feel on the other side. “I thought I was going to have a complete breakdown, get stuck in there and never get out,” they say. “But I see now they only way out is through. And I feel so much better now. I can actually think straight”
You get to choose when, where and how to go through the tunnel. My preferred place is either by myself in my office, away from my family, or when I need extra support, with a peer coach.
And we feel our way to the other end of the tunnel. We don’t talk our way there. Venting is not feeling - that’s amplifying. Feeling our emotions looks like tracking them in our bodies. We feel the flush on our face, the wild thumping of our heart, our clenched fists, our roiling guts, our hot wet salty tears, our stuffy runny nose.
Feeling the feels literally got me through the pandemic. Saved me from burnout. And is saving me now as I contemplate the horror of Ukraine. I very intentionally allow my train to go chugging into the tunnel. All the way into the dark, where there is no light to be had. And I keep on feeling into my body. And the light comes. It always comes. And I reach calm and peace, and am ready now to decide what to actually DO with what I’ve felt.
Rule #3: Data, not directives
Emotions come from our “Thinking Fast” brain (Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman). Wise action comes from our “Thinking Slow” brain. Emotions give us critical data about the situation, our values, and how we feel ourselves to be in relationship to others. But the data is crude, raw and riddled with biases, assumptions and judgements. Emotions are not the full picture - but they are vital pieces of the puzzle. Our emotions always point us towards something we value, something that is important to us and we care about deeply. This is why we need to feel our emotions - so that we can gather ALL the data.
But to take wise action on this data, we need to bring our “thinking slow” systems online. In particular, we need to engage our prefrontal cortex, which is home to our executive functions. Master meditators access this state almost at will. For the rest of us, going through the tunnel provides another way there.
It’s never our emotions that are wrong. It’s only what we choose to do with them that is helpful or harmful. Outraged at what is happening in Ukraine or how your boss or an employee is behaving? Feel your outrage, mine it for all of its data. Get to the other side of the tunnel, where the flush of electrochemicals has subsided and you are now calm, purposeful, values-centered and grounded. Then and only then decide what action to take. Maybe you don’t share the outrage-inducing post, but rather connect with a local volunteer organization instead. Maybe you decide to stop feeling like the victim, and start to take responsibility for what you can do. Maybe you realize there is more you need to know before assuming your employee is just being willful.
It’s not our emotions that light our way out of the dark tunnel, it’s our values. But to find them and connect with them, we need to go through the tunnel. Then we can take calm, purposeful, value-centered action that is not about hurting someone else, or numbing ourselves, in an attempt to make ourselves better.
Feel the feels.
With practice we start to live more and more in the sweet spot: emotionally intelligent, warm, and approachable, but also emotionally well-regulated. Caring, but clear. Empathetic, but straightforward.
I love good science fiction and have read every one of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Series, all of the Dune series, and many others. I picked up Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy at our Friends of the Library book sale last year, and devoured it.
In the third book of the series, Blue Mars, there is this passage in the chapter titled “A New Constitution”. At the time I read it, it blew me away.
Suddenly, Vlad Taneev stood up. Startled, Antar stopped speaking and looked over.
There is so much more to this powerful story, beautifully told, but it’s Robinson’s “If self rule is a fundamental value, if simple justice is a value, then they are values everywhere, including the workplace where we spend so much of our lives” that has stuck with me these many months since I read it.
No one ever gets up in the morning, eager to be harassed, humiliated, ignored, demeaned or diminished. No target, however “provocative”, keeps thinking of all the ways they can provoke people into bullying them. Targets are not at fault. There is not something wrong with them. They did not cause their bullying.
And yet, they are also part of the system that drives bullying.
Because most targets, like most professionals everywhere, have conflated their identity - who they are, their worth as human beings - with what they do, with their jobs.
How do we come to find ourselves in this situation? Here's my story. My guess is that there are a lot of parallels with your story.
Somewhere along the line, long before I even left school - and certainly without any conscious awareness on my part - I adopted the prevailing cultural belief: you are what you do. If you get good grades, good girl! If you get a good degree, good girl! If you get a good job, you’re becoming a real woman! If you get promoted and rise through the ranks, you're are a worthwhile human being.
I dutifully pursued that path for 40 odd years. And then it all came to a crashing halt. Next week it will be 5 years since I went out on disability leave. When the “old me” died. That dying was awful. And painful. And traumatic. And terrifying.
And it was the best thing that ever happened to me.
I'd deluded myself for a long time in thinking that I could, or should, conform myself to meet the expectations of others. Because that was what I thought was expected of me. Basically, in trying so hard to succeed by other people’s standards, I failed at being me. And when my job mattered to me in that way, who had the power? Certainly not me.
The first wake up moment took place in 2010 when I was the only one in the small company I then worked for who was selected for “lay-off". As explained to me later by a high ranking woman with whom I had worked: “You pissed some of the old men off. They didn’t like that you pointed out that their decisions flew in the face of the data and what the market research was saying. So they complained. And your company decided to get rid of the problem - you - rather than face up to the problem: an old-guard self-protective system. You didn’t do something wrong. You just didn’t do something right - as defined by them.”
Things have changed a lot since then. But I would argue that, even after a pandemic, the business world doesn’t really want us in all our glorious messiness and imperfection and jumble of contradictions. They want one thing and one thing only from us: our ability to show up and do the work they set for us. That is what they pay us for.
And that’s totally reasonable and fair.
But still today, most organizations and bosses seem to be operating under the belief that they are not only buying our time - but also our personalities. And they buy it when we acquiescence to the unspoken norms about how we are supposed to be at work: what we wear, what we talk about, how we are supposed to “show up” in terms of attitude, how early we arrive, how late we stay, our deference to authority, and hundreds of other daily choices. And then we wonder at how bullied, ignored, pushed around, overlooked, mistreated we feel or unfair the whole thing seems?
I had the most delightful coffee with a former colleague a few weeks back. We have traveled very similar journeys in terms of fall-out from our jobs having catastrophic impacts on our health and well-being. But where my path has taken me to coaching her path has taken her back to a different job. One where she is utterly clear eyed about what she is doing and why: she is selling her time for money. It’s that simple. Not for her identity, not for purpose, not for meaning and fulfillment - she is meeting those needs in other ways.
As I sat listening to her describe how - because of this - she can see what is actually going on in the company (rather a lot of disorganization), clearly point it out to the owner and her boss, and offer potential suggestions for improvements, all while being completely detached from how her boss responds or reacts, I had the biggest smile on my face. This is freedom - the real, meaningful kind. Because that organization, that boss - they have no power over her. Absolutely zero. And all because she has learned to detach her worth from her job; to separate what she does to earn a living from who she is as a human being. She knows she has worth just as she is, regardless of what kind of job she has. And because of this she’s no threat to the organization or to her boss’s ego either. She gets to be who she is AND she gets to work a job she chooses to do. It’s a joy behold.
If you are someone who is feeling bullied, yes, it’s possible to get to this place. No, it’s not easy. Yes, it takes work. And yes, it is worth it. You get your life back. You get to be you. One part of your path to this sort of freedom and joy is really ditching the 200 pound weight on your back that is tying your worth and identity to your job. Because work won’t love you back.
And if you are someone who leads and manages other people, I ask you to examine what assumptions you are making about how much you get to dictate to them about who they are supposed to be. “If self rule is a fundamental value, if simple justice is a value, then they are values everywhere, including the workplace where we spend so much of our lives.”
How much autonomy are you giving to your staff? How much are you expecting them to follow certain norms that really have nothing at all to do with their capacity to get their work done? There is an inverse relationship between control and trust: the more you control, the less people feel trusted, and the less they feel trusted, the less well they perform. “When a trustworthy work climate exists, information is communicated more openly, people are more willing to help one another and willing to test ideas even if these may ultimately fail. Such behavior, over time, leads to outcomes that make companies more creative, innovative, cooperative, and fast moving, which are all factors that drive performance in direct ways.” (What COVID-19 Teaches Us About the Importance of Trust at Work, Knowledge@Wharton).
Our jobs can give us great meaning and purpose. They can be places of tremendous personal and professional fulfillment and growth. We can look forward to going to work every day. And feel valued and trusted.
And they can also be places of misery and suffering. A lot of this is due to organizational structures and systems, yes.
But not all of it.
In Nonviolent Communication we teach that “There is no system in the world that reliably has enough physical force that can oppress large numbers of people without their partial cooperation or consent.” Malcolm Gladwell explores these themes in David and Goliath. When we conflate who we are with what we do, we give some of our power, some of our innate rights to self-determination, away. We partially consent to the very system that causes us so much misery.
We are not to blame for that. Society and our education systems actively socialize us into that belief.
And, if we are to bring humanity, dignity and compassion back to the workplace, so that all can thrive, it starts with not
carving workplaces out as the expectation to “If self rule is a fundamental value, if simple justice is a value, then they are values everywhere.”
Sue Mann - Coach
Reflections on how we reclaim and sustain our worthiness in the face of falls and challenges.