No, You Don’t Have to Turn Off Your Emotions at Work
While acting on your emotions at work may make you appear combative, it may be worse if you regulate emotions to the point of never expressing how you feel. Here, we discuss how to strike a balance between emotional regulation and authentic expression.
Written by:Tara A. Collison, Ph.D.
Most of us are emotionally invested in our jobs, and for good reason. Professional success impacts our well-being, happiness, and sense of purpose. High stakes like these obviously cause a wide array of emotions, but we learn early on that showing too much of this at work is somewhat taboo. Acting on your emotions may make you appear combative, impatient, unreliable, or even weak.
This kind of thinking leads to questions: If showing emotion at work is bad, then how far should you swing in the opposite direction? Should you try to regulate your emotions to the point of never showing them? Do they have a place in your leadership style at all?
Don’t Shut Out Your Emotions
Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst, ranked #10 on Glassdoor’s list of America’s best CEOs, disagrees with the popular, sometimes unspoken rule to mask your emotions at work. He believes an emotional response is a “reflection of a person’s passion.” In fact, Whitehurst claims it might actually be a red flag if an employee is unable to express what they’re feeling.
In his opinion, choosing to hide your emotion weakens your influence. It diminishes your credibility with co-workers, higher-ups, and clients. Sometimes you become so focused on holding it together – masking your natural response – that you forget that ways in which expressing emotion can help you build trust, strengthen relationships across the board, inspire focus, and learn from failure.
In an article from Harvard Business Review, leadership and strategy consultant Doug Sundheim expands upon Whitehurst’s beliefs. He says, “Much of what comes out of people’s mouths in business these days is sugar-coated, couched, and polished. The messages are manufactured, trying to strike just the right tone. Genuine emotion stands in stark contrast. It’s a real person sharing a real feeling. When we hear it, we’re riveted — for one because it’s rare, but also because it’s real. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable and a little messy. But that’s what makes it powerful.”
The power he’s referring to isn’t entirely a product of passion or even “positive” emotion. He admits that emotions can be “uncomfortable and a little messy.” His point is, as a leader, your ability to inspire loyalty often comes from expressing honest emotion.
Regulate Your Emotions
Of course, none of this changes the fact that leaning too heavily on your emotions, or showing them too readily, can undermine your authority. Despite his clear approval of showing emotion at work, Sundheim concedes that when you lose control, it can “cloud objective analysis, screw up negotiations, and lead to rash decisions.”
If you’re experiencing an emotionally charged moment, you’re less inclined to listen, which means your peers don’t receive your full attention. Your brain doesn’t process information as well as it could either. Overall, uncontrolled emotion leads to disengagement. Thankfully, your ability to regulate those feelings can be strengthened like a muscle. The more you practice, the better you become at determining when you should and shouldn’t show your emotions.
- Practice walking away. Sometimes the best way to clear your head is by removing yourself from the situation.
- Inhale slowly for five seconds, pause, and then exhale slowly for five seconds. Do this at least five times, and try not to focus on anything else.
- Acknowledge what you’re feeling and identify what triggered your response. Many times, identifying your emotion takes away the power and allows us to re-engage our “thinking brain.”
- Relabel your emotion. When we actively change our perspective, we win back power. For example, label nervousness as excitement to better your performance and reorient yourself to what can be an emotional situation.
Communicate Authentically Instead of Emotionally
So, which is worse? Showing too much emotion or not enough? Sundheim says that in “nearly two decades of working with leaders, I’ve found that showing too much emotion is far less of a problem than the opposite — showing too little.”
Perhaps the answer is not to show all your cards, i.e. every emotion you experience at work, but to communicate authentically. After all, authentic leadership is honest, genuine, and rooted in emotion. Whitehurst says, “The goal is not to show more emotion, the goal is to become a more authentic, effective communicator. Emotions should help you better communicate so you can get work done and get results.”
In light of that, here are four ways to practice authentic leadership:
- Recognize the gap between who you are and who you aspire to be, then work to close that gap. This is where a leadership coach can make a huge difference. They can help you identify your strengths and weaknesses and serve as a mirror to reflect them back on you.
- Ask for feedback from your peers. Use their input to make necessary adjustments to your leadership style.
- Be aware of your own emotions. Take the time to identify your response, then reflect. What caused the feeling? Was it an appropriate response? Did it help you accomplish your goals?
- Value the needs of others, and focus on their goals and behaviors. Be careful not to practice selfishness in the name of authenticity.
Learning to strike a balance between emotional regulation and authentic expression can make you a more formidable leader. At Meddlers, we help our clients identify their strengths and weaknesses, and implement the kinds of strategies that unlock true potential. Contact us today to learn more.