Organisations have a long history of sidelining messy emotions. The standard view is that employees and leaders alike can be either optimistic or stoic – but never outwardly angry, sad or disappointed.
In the face of change in the workplace, there’s pressure to “just get on with it”. Employees are often told “you’re either with us or against us – you’re either on the bus or off the bus,” with no middle ground.
The relationship between individuals and organisations is often adversarial. “There’s this idea that what is good for the organisation is not good for the person or vice versa.
Embracing the full range of the human emotional experience results in better outcomes for all parties. They are mutually advantageous to both the individual, who benefits from improved wellbeing and opportunities to grow, and the organisation, which benefits because its employees are engaged and “feel they can do their best work”.
A prerequisite of emotional agility is psychological safety – “the idea that people feel safe to bring their emotional truth to the workplace without feeling that they are going to be fired, scapegoated, or branded negative.”
Negative emotions play “profoundly important roles” in the workplace. Innovation and collaboration are often accompanied by failure, disappointment and conflict. Commonly held goals like agility and inclusiveness are simply not possible unless the organisation has a greater level of openness towards the more difficult emotions that people are experiencing.
These emotions serve a purpose, holding within them valuable data that we can learn from,. If you feel guilty as a parent because you have been travelling a lot for work, “that guilt might be a signpost for you that presence and connectedness… with your children are really important,”. If you disregard that guilt because it is negative, rather than listening to it, you miss the chance to reaffirm your values and shift your behaviour.
In an organisation, difficult emotions signpost the things people care about. Dissenters are often labelled as troublemakers, but dismissing their concerns is a mistake. If someone in your team is frustrated because they are bored at work, it’s usually a sign that they value growth and development and need a new challenge.
A staff member who voices misgivings about a new strategy could be highlighting a clash with the organisation’s values, while grumbling about a project’s timeline is a red flag that an employee is worried that quality will be compromised.
When HR or a leader push that feedback aside, they lose the opportunity to explore whether it can help the organisation “to develop a better product, a better outcome, or a better strategy”.
Organisations must move away from the narrative that there are good and bad ways of feeling and recognise that they are dealing with humans who experience the full range of emotions. After all, human beings aren’t machines. “We are complex, and we have our own values.”
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