Come Out of the Emotional Closet

January 16th 2014

When I hear a business person speak with disdain about emotions in business, I can feel my feathers ruffle. And my feathers get ruffled a lot. For example: “We’re all about technical proficiency at this firm. Soft-skills education is a waste of time and money.” Better yet: “Showing emotion at work is a bad career move.” Or my personal favorite:

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“Oh, I don’t have time to worry about that touchy-feely crap. That’s why I have HR people.” 

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Bias against emotion at work is as ridiculous as bias against gender, race or sexual preference. To deny that employees are emotional beings is to deny reality. No matter how cold the exterior may be, a heart beats inside. Ignoring the heart and what makes it beat happily is stupid business.

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After all my years working with humans, I am sure of one thing: feelings are the foundation of everything, whether personal or professional. Feelings drive thoughts. Thoughts drive behavior. Behavior drives results. In that order, always. As a leader, if you want a good result from your team members, then recognize that emotions form the foundation of who they are and how they perform.

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I’m pretty sure I know why so many leaders dismiss emotions at work. It’s because many of them, mostly male, are uncomfortable with their own emotions. They’ve spent a lifetime living up to society’s definition of masculinity. They have stuffed their emotions under mountains of work and less-productive endeavors like overeating, over drinking, and shutting down at home. And while I hate to admit this, plenty of women in leadership positions are doing the same thing. What a pity. We can do better. Here’s how:

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Get comfortable in your own skin. Accept that you are a whole human being walking into your firm every day. You are not just your brain; you are your heart, body, and spirit. All of you comes to work. When you understand and accept this, you will get better at recognizing that your emotions are an integral part of your successes and your failures. In fact, your emotions play a huge role in making you uniquely you.

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Respect and acknowledge others’ emotions. Everybody has them, and they bring them to work every day. You don’t need to run around hugging everyone. However, you can certainly allow for a discussion of emotional responses to ideas, initiatives, and specific experiences. It’s as simple as this: just add a question to your conversations. In concluding a thought or conversation, you might typically ask “What do you think of that?”. Now just add one more: “How do you feel about that?” You are likely to get a richer and more meaningful response by asking both questions.

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Actively seek out the emotional temperature of your organization. Don’t just find out what people are doing. Find out how they feel. Ask them. Then give them room to answer. Make it safe for them to answer truthfully. And if you don’t like the emotional temperature in your firm, take action to make things better. Be intentional about it and take personal responsibility for it, rather than relegating it to your Fun Committee or to HR.

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All of this is easier said than done. But once you begin down the path of understanding people as whole beings rather than intellectual capital, no doubt you will find the journey rewarding for yourself and your firm. You will unleash your team in all its wholeness, increasing creativity, reducing turnover, and adding to your bottom line. It sure beats living life in the dark, cramped quarters of an emotional closet.

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