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The challenge of navigating big emotions in the workplace

“Nothing personal; it’s just business.”

Otto Berman, an accountant for organized crime in America in the 1920s and 30s, coined that phrase. Regrettably, it has remained in the corporate vernacular for far too long. It’s time we banish that organizational ghost for good!

When we invest in being human at work, our relationships are deeper and more genuine, driving a concerted effort toward progress. We are rewarded with camaraderie, support, loyalty, trust, and a work environment designed to be inclusive, authentic, and accountable.

What does that investment look like?

To demonstrate a commitment to our own personal growth and to our relationships, we must be willing to navigate challenging emotions that emerge in the workplace.

There is a misguided belief that being “professional” requires us to not be “emotional.” To the contrary, consummate professionals must raise their personal and social emotional competencies to succeed in the work world.

Navigating tough, big emotions in the workplace can feel daunting. We may feel disappointed for not getting a promotion, rejected for getting laid off, unappreciated for a contribution we made that went unrecognized, disrespected for not being involved in a discussion, or intimidated by a forceful personality.

Our tendency when we experience intense emotions at work is to either stuff them or fuel the hurt.

When we ignore or stuff our emotions, we fail to own what is happening in our internal landscape. We disrespect the validity of our experience. When we do this, emotions fester into concrete perceptions and beliefs that can wreak havoc. Ignoring our emotions does not make them go away; it just requires us to carry more baggage.

When we fuel our hurt, we might do so by making others wrong, which momentarily feels righteous, but often keeps us stuck in victimhood, erodes our confidence, and deteriorates relationships.

Alternatively, if we allow ourselves to feel our emotions, understand what they mean, and learn how to navigate them effectively, we have the capacity to build meaningful connections that help our workplaces thrive. This also translates to a lot less drama, communication breakdowns, and inefficiencies.

Emotions as data points

It can be helpful to view emotions as valuable data on our professional journeys. They offer us insightful feedback that can accelerate our growth and invite a sense of empowerment. A strong emotional reaction tells us what matters to us. It can also illuminate our insecurities and vulnerabilities. And, while they can be uncomfortable, they serve as a catapulting space for raising our awareness – a requisite for change.

I had a CEO express to me his utter frustration with his directors. I explained that his frustration was an indicator that he cared and was committed. It was a data point that he could tap into to make a change. Understanding his frustration helped him more clearly identify what he wanted and take ownership for articulating those expectations. Ultimately it opened a series of necessary and productive conversations about priorities, resources, feedback, and accountability. It reignited a shared and aligned commitment to the organization’s goals. By acknowledging his frustration, he channeled it into something worthwhile for the organization and for his relationship with his direct reports.

Managing emotions at work better

There is a common cycle we get caught in: we get triggered, we experience a strong emotion, we tell ourselves a story about what happened, we react, and there is an impact.

First, slow down and pay attention to what is going on for you. Cultivate a mindfulness that allows you to be observant of the external and internal environments that may be shaping your experience.

Name the emotion. The more skilled we become in knowing the precise emotion we are feeling, the more likely we can address it in a healthy way. I encourage my clients to expand their repertoire of emotions. Go beyond the obvious and get into the nuances. Do you feel restless, anxious, cautious, irritable, stagnated, disappointed, or confused? What is underneath that emotion? What does it tell you about what matters to you? What would you want your emotional landscape to be?

As you discover the emotion, recognize it is a valid feeling and not an identity. To assist with this distinction, practice naming your emotion as a current, temporary state – “I feel frustrated” – rather than a trait of who you are – “I am frustrated.” This allows for more fluidity and less attachment.

Identify the trigger. The trigger might be a combination of an external factor and an internal belief system. Perhaps you are feeling disrespected because of a colleague repeatedly interrupting you at the staff meeting. Perhaps you feel unappreciated because you were not invited to join a task force. Maybe it was as simple as an email you received that felt demeaning or possessed a curt tone.

Identify the story you’re telling yourself. We all interpret what transpires in our exchanges. Try bringing an objective viewpoint by asking what you are telling yourself about the experience, that person, and even their intentions. If you are feeling disrespected, perhaps the story you are telling yourself is that the person doesn’t value what you have to offer.

Know the impact. Are you shutting down, less engaged, less willing to contribute? Are you distancing yourself from the person or trigger? Are you feeling less confident or competent?

Choose how you want to respond. Rather than react, allow your emotions to guide you in a wiser response. You might say to your colleague, “When we are in our weekly meetings my experience is that you often interrupt me. I find it incredibly frustrating. It’s impacting my desire to contribute. I want us to be able to respectfully listen to each other’s ideas, even if we disagree.”

It takes awareness and courage to express emotions in a constructive way. By doing so you are raising your emotional intelligence, strengthening relationships, and investing in an emotionally rich workplace culture.

Karen Natzel is a business therapist who helps leaders create healthy, vibrant and high-performing organizations. Contact her at 503-806-4361 or [email protected].