emotions workplace

Work life matters: Emotions at work

Hello everyone, I’m new around here. My name’s Rich and I’ve been working with professional services firms on employee engagement and wellbeing for about 25 years. I know, I don’t look old enough, right…? Err. Moving on… I’ll be writing a new monthly column to explore different aspects of working in the legal sector.

This time around it’s about the role of emotions at work.

When you roll into the office each morning and you’re greeted with a cheery “hello, how are you?”, it’s a natural response to say something along the lines of “fine” or “all good with me”. You’re not thinking that the person really cares about how you’re really feeling. It’s just an exchange, a pleasantry, a norm.

But what if you’re experiencing some kind of feeling which you actually want to talk about, and they genuinely care? Would the conversational norms allow the interaction to go beyond traditional pleasantries?

My gut feel is a resounding “no”. People don’t often stray into talking about how they really feel in this type of exchange.

And if you’re now thinking something along the lines of “and definitely not in a work environment”, then you’ll be amongst the majority, because talking about how you feel at work is a bit uncomfortable and “icky” isn’t it? I get that. It’s unusual. It’s difficult. It’s a bit weird at first.

However, consider the upsides.

As humans, we all have our preferences on how we want to feel at work in order to do the best at our job. How you label these emotions is up to you, but we have this innate sense of what our own “desired workplace feelings” might be. We similarly have a sense of what our own “undesired workplace feelings” might be.

Yet, we rarely share these with our colleagues.

Think how powerful it could be if we could openly exchange these ideas with our team-mates at work and then put in place some things which allowed us to experience the desired feelings and not experience the undesired feelings. Wouldn’t work be a better place?

You may be thinking that this is all pink and fluffy stuff with no empirical evidence. You’d be wrong – very wrong. There is a mountain of data showing the link between emotional culture and organisational performance. One of my favourites is from Professor Michael Parke at the Wharton School in Pennsylvania. His research in 2021 concluded:

“We found that teams that have an environment where they feel comfortable sharing their genuine emotions with their team members, and they don’t just ignore [emotions] but they work through them, not only come up with better ideas and insights, they get to the richer discussions as well. They’re more creative. They produce more creative outcomes.”

You’d feel better at work. You’d be more likely to perform your job better. Your organisation would benefit from your improved performance. Everyone wins.

So if this is all useful and helpful stuff, why doesn’t this just happen normally?

It’s because people don’t feel psychologically safe talking about how they are feeling at work. It’s scary. It makes them feel vulnerable.

Some even think that showing emotions at work is essentially demonstrating a weakness. Aren’t people who work in the legal sector meant to be hard-nosed, process driven, rule-following robots who don’t feel any emotions?

Or can we all help to create a better working environment by being compassionate and learning to better talk about how we’re feeling and how we want to feel in order to do our best work?

I’m not advocating emptying your heart every morning when you walk into the office. That’s extreme. But the opposite extreme of bottling everything up and not talking about your feelings is more dangerous in the other direction. There has to be a middle ground. That’s where you should be aiming.

Two things you can do next

  1. Team leaders should embrace the exchange of genuine feelings between colleagues. Include an opportunity for people to talk about their workplace emotions at the next team meeting. Not everyone will want to join in the conversation. That’s fine. Don’t push. But do allow those who want to talk the opportunity to do so.
  2. This may take a while to get off the ground. It may take a few weeks before people start to open up. Be patient. Maybe for the first few meetings you could allow people to write down their desired and undesired emotions on post-its and stick then to a wall instead of talking about them. That way the emotions become detached from the person and it may be a quicker route to developing a sense of psychological safety.

Rich Lambert is the founder of Morale Solutions Ltd. He specialises in helping professional services firms create brilliant workplaces through bespoke research and data-driven strategies.

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