Managing emotion at work

So I wanted to talk about a favourite topic of mine; showing emotion at work. The phrase “you’re too emotional” or “s/he’s too emotional” is one I often hear from people, particularly managers who get frustrated when trying to work with different people who display different emotions.

But what exactly does that mean? Well, we all have preferences in how we like to do things, personalities that are different and different things that make us happy, sad, stressed and so on. Emotions are a core part of who we are as people and, if we really want people to be truly engaged at work (which is where success lies for all organizations) they have to bring their whole selves to work, which includes their emotions. So being ’emotional’ at work really shouldn’t be a bad thing…

But really what most people are saying when they say “too emotional” is that they are uncomfortable with the degree of emotion that the other person is displaying. The question then of course, is what exactly is making you uncomfortable. And now we are talking about impact.

The ‘limit’ when it comes to emotions in the workplace is largely a personal one, with some elements of the overall corporate culture also setting the tone. I have worked with some companies where the traditional ‘stiff upper lip’ is expected in all contexts, and others where hugging and crying are normal and even having stand up ‘shouting’ arguments is seen as healthy debate. I will say, that the latter tends to be rarer, but it can be a challenge to know what is ‘acceptable’ in your workplace and with the people you work with.

So if we want people to bring their emotions to work, but there is a point where someone could be ‘too emotional’, and the line about that is a bit blurry, what do we do? Here are my top 3 suggestions.

1. Set your own line.

Set some ground rules for your team up front about emotions. Let them know what, for you as a leader, is comfortable and ultimately acceptable. If you are a more emotionally transparent person (as in you ‘wear your heart on your sleeve’) let the team know to expect that and give them the opportunity to ask questions if they see you displaying emotion they don’t have context for. If you are more reserved, let them know the best way to raise concerns with you, and when is a good time to do that. Be aware though, as a leader, if you aren’t comfortable with the emotions of others, that doesn’t mean you can ask them not to have them! So working on getting comfortable with people who may show more emotion than you (and not holding it against them but coaching them to make sure they are constructive!) is important. See suggestions 2 & 3.

2. Recognize emotions are just data

Emotions are information. All an emotional display from someone else tells you, no matter what type of emotion they are showing, is that something that is happening right now is important to them. If they are exuberant, happy, joyful etc. its likely ‘good’ and important for them. If they are sad, angry, frustrated, disappointed etc. then its likely a ‘bad’ thing that they feel is important. And that is all emotion is. A big flashing sign about what is important to someone else. So treat it that way, and ask questions. What is going on that has triggered this emotion? Its important to know what makes your people tick if you are going to lead them effectively, and the more you both understand about what is important to you, the more effectively you can work together and the more you will be able to help manage emotion.

3. Coach for impact

Sometimes we find people ‘too emotional’ because of how they present that emotion. There is a big difference between someone coming and saying “I need to talk to you because I am really frustrated. Can you listen to me?” and then having a rant, versus walking into your office and letting rip. The actual rant may be the same level of emotion, but the pre-amble gives you those important few moments to prepare. So coach your team. When someone comes in and emotionally unloads on you, within the first few moments coach them on parameters with a few key phrases:

– “You seem to be ” Labelling helps develop awareness. If you tell me I seem to be frustrated, I will generally become aware of that which can help me lead to self management. It also just makes me aware of the impact I may be having on someone else.

– What do you need from me in this conversation right now?” Raising this very early in the conversation helps them to identify what they hope to achieve by sharing their emotions, and what role you need to play to support them. Often emotions make us uncomfortable because we don’t want someone else to feel sad, bad, frustrated etc. And so we try to ‘fix’ it. As a leader you don’t need to fix them – that is taking the monkey. You need to help them address how they are feeling and find their own way through.

– Help them to be constructive. Play back key elements you are hearing. What patterns or themes do you see in when they become emotional? Help them use action language to address issues rather than just venting about them. What & How questions can help others to be more logical about the situation they are in , get them thinking and planning which can help to reduce emotion.

At the end of the day, emotions are part of working with others. The best teams are ones that leverage their emotion, not suppress it so if you lead other people, start thinking about how you role modelling being emotional at work, so it adds to your team not detracts from it.

Want to know more? Check out our blog post:

Overly emotional? Get some sleep!

Managing emotion. The role of gender.

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