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Sharing your emotions at work

Why being honest about how you feel may be the key to a healthy culture

In the last 18 months, countless companies across various industries have switched to either a remote-first or hybrid work model. Such a paradigm shift in work conditions has significant repercussions on employee well-being. Employees who are fighting loneliness and isolation gradually become disenfranchised as they grapple with the blurred lines between work and personal life. At the same time, business owners are facing a harsh reality. The slow erosion of their company’s emotional culture. According to the Harvard Business Review, emotional culture is described as “the shared affective values, norms, artifacts, and assumptions that govern which emotions people have and express at work and which ones they are better off suppressing.” In other words, how far are you allowed to be yourself in a professional environment?

Why do we avoid feeling and sharing negative emotions?

Showing vulnerability often comes at a great cost, particularly when negative emotions are involved. In a recent article, Sarah Epstein, a licensed therapist, explains that one may develop a mechanism to prevent oneself from expressing an emotion based on previous experience where the individual was confronted with an unhealthy situation. She classifies these situations into 4 categories:

  1. Self-judgment and deprecation - A feeling may not be welcomed if the same emotion when experienced and expressed as a child was smeared by negative reaction;

  2. Fear of outside judgment - Individuals are reluctant to display some emotions in the open simply because they are overwhelmed by social anxiety;

  3. Worry of being trapped in our emotions - There is a propensity to believe that once we display a feeling, it will define our emotions forever. So we develop ways to numb it.

  4. Inability to cope with emotions - With no healthy mechanism to regulate emotions, individuals feel helpless and rudderless. Unsure of how to label and express their emotions, they are unable to put emotions into perspective and choose to reject it altogether.

When transposed in a remote work environment, these situations can become more prevalent, leading team members to isolate themselves from others, and preventing their teams from getting perspective on their current state of mind. With more than 74% of companies planning to shift some of their employees to remote working permanently, the burden of helping team members connect with one another falls onto leadership. There is a need for business owners and leaders to support their teams in learning to understand and acknowledge each other’s emotions in a distributed work environment.

What is emotional acknowledgment? Why is it important?

It can be very challenging for someone to infer and label emotions from non-verbal cues, particularly during virtual meetings and asynchronous communication. Each team member has a unique emotional baseline, and we know that no matter if their emotions are positive (happy, excited, enthusiastic, energetic, etc) or negative (angry, anxious, sad, tired, etc.) individuals want them to be acknowledged by others.

Research conducted by Stanford Graduate School of Business introduced a novel perspective on the role of deliberately labeling non-verbal emotions in fostering interpersonal trust. The research shed light on the consequences of explicitly acknowledging somebody's emotions (or not) and how that impacts the strength of social relationships.

The research provided evidence that a stronger bond is created between two team members when the perceiver chooses to verbally appraise the expresser’s emotion, particularly if that emotion is a negative one. This derives from the assumption that the perceiver is willing to spend time listening to a team member despite the risk of negative emotional contagion. When a team member voluntarily prioritizes the relationship over their own issues, trust grows as a result of clear evidence of selfless intent.

How does emotional acknowledgment reinforce a company’s emotional culture?

Empirical studies also offer solid evidence of the significant impact of emotions on engagement, performance, and overall productivity. When employees at Cisco Finance were surveyed about their organization’s emotional culture, they were not asked about their own feelings but what emotions they saw their coworkers expressing on a regular basis. The survey uncovered that Joy was a key driver of employee engagement and company performance.

This led management to create a new ritual called “Pause for Fun”, which encourages employees to take a break and have a little fun. By measuring this signal at the same level as productivity, performance, and creativity the company’s management also sent out the message that the company’s emotional culture was a priority.

How can you improve emotional acknowledgment and emotional culture in your company?

As hard as it may seem, it is not impossible for leaders to nurture a conducive emotional culture. Here are some ways in which that can be achieved:

1. Depolarize emotions

It starts by depolarizing emotions. Any emotion is just that, neither positive nor negative. This gives permission to anyone in the team to express their own and acknowledge others’ emotions.

2. Teach team members how to deal with emotions

Encourage teams to resonate and empathize with each other. The more distributed teams practice emotional acknowledgment, the higher their level of emotional intelligence and the more accurate they become in their assessment. Therefore it should always be okay to ask “I see you are feeling (...). Do you want to share/talk about it?” If the default behavior is to ignore an emotion however diffused it may be, it can signal indifference or apathy. The adage “sharing is caring” holds true when it comes to emotional regulation for a high-performing cohesive team.

3. Lead by example

A potent way to do this is to codify these behaviors in the organization’s set of values and encourage team leaders to regularly express their emotions and verbally appraise those of their team members. According to Harvard University psychologist Daniel Goleman, an expert in emotional intelligence, this provokes a positive “trickle-down effect”.

4. Develop the right rituals

Rituals are excellent as a vehicle in daily organizational life to enact these behaviors. Emotional culture platforms like Aion or Kona provide a useful artifact around which a ritual can be created. By providing teams with the tool and space to safely express and acknowledge emotions, this allows them to demonstrate care and benevolence towards one another.

5. Make someone accountable for it

It’s always helpful to ask someone to take on the responsibility of creating that safe space for the rest of the team and making sure we don’t forget to take the time to support each other on an emotional level. Having a “chief of staff” will provide the impetus to nurture a healthy relationship amongst team members. This can be the leader of the team or another team member that is trusted by the other team members.

6. Measure it

If organizations are to achieve a thriving emotional culture, it is critical to measure their progress. Surveys are the most direct and impactful way to measure emotional culture. Emotional culture surveys ask employees to observe the emotions, norms, values, rituals, and assumptions their colleagues have around which feelings can be expressed at work. By measuring these dimensions, companies can assess their employees’ level of emotional acknowledgment and intelligence.

By understanding where the gaps are, leaders can make timely decisions for their teams’ development to improve the workplace culture. A meaningful check-in or ice-breaking question is an easy starting step to learning how to have conversations about how we feel at work.


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