Emotions are energy in motion. Without them, we wouldn’t feel compelled to act, create, or move an inch. This is why they are so vital, not just in our personal lives, but also in the workplace. A company’s formal organizational structure is always invisibly overlaid with an informal network of relationships fueled by emotions.
Studies show us that emotions impact how we perform, lead, make decisions, innovate, and commit to our organizations. Recent research from Wharton management professor Michael Parke indicates that expressing emotions in the workplace among teams results in their enhanced ability to solve problems and generate ideas.
Toxic positivity is forcing us to fake it
And yet, showing emotions at work, especially the more complicated ones, still seems inconceivable for many managers. Some fear losing face or authority, while others think they’ll be perceived as soft or weak. For many of us, “toxic positivity” is still the default culture that will outline how we show up and lead.
No wonder we are faking it. Among the 5,000 people who took our free online test on emotional intelligence at work, 51% replied that they “always” or “frequently” need to put on a show. Furthermore, “the 51% who have to ‘put on a show’ are 32% less likely to love their job.”
At the same time, the pandemic has made us reassess our relationships, and what truly matters to us. We feel strongly about work, and if this sentiment is not recognized by our employers, we quit—as we are seeing from the Great Resignation. The McKinsey Great Attrition Survey states that more than 50% of employees who resigned during the pandemic did not feel valued by their organization, their manager, or lacked an overall sense of belonging. And 46% cited the desire to work with people who trust and care for each other as yet another reason to quit.
Clearly, “on an individual level, we all want this,” as Danielle Mackowski, director of employee success at booking.com, points out. But often the fear of organizational backlash prevents us from pursuing a more emotional life at work, very much at the expense of more fulfilling and effective work cultures.
How can we change this?
Emotions are complicated and granular
One key factor is emotional diversity. In her new book, Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Can Make Us Whole, Susan Cain explores the more complicated emotions such as sadness or melancholy in both our personal lives and work lives. She demands that we give ourselves and our colleagues the license to experience and express a wider spectrum of emotions, including especially those labeled as “negative” that subvert the pressures of positivity. A truly human workplace is not one that wants to make us happy all the time, but a workplace that also allows us to be sad.
In this spirit, Salem Hospital in Oregon created a “Rage Room.” Employees were invited to write grievances and difficult emotions they had during the pandemic on plates, and then smash them against the wall, similar to a burning ceremony where people write down what they are willing to let go of and then burn it.
Emotional diversity also means emotional granularity, a term coined by the psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett, whose research suggests that people with higher degrees of emotional granularity are better at responding to life challenges.
When it comes to emotions, ambiguity is a feature, not a bug. In fact, emotions occur along a gradient and are not sharply distinguishable or mutually exclusive. For a considerable period, common wisdom held that there are a base set of six “classic” emotions: happy, surprised, afraid, disgusted, angry, and sad. But in 2014, a study claimed there are only four basic emotions : happy, sad, afraid, and angry. Then a 2017 study from UC Berkeley showed that there are 27 categories of emotions.
Just open the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows to discover an even broader range of nuanced emotions. For example, “solysium” is defined as “a kind of delirium arising from spending too much time by yourself.” Or “languishing,” a word organizational psychologist Adam Grant highlighted as the “dominant emotion of 2021,” that went viral on social media.
We must have empathy with ourselves
Finally, emotional diversity requires empathy: the ability to relate to the feelings of others.
And yet, it is important that empathy starts with empathy with ourselves, with acknowledging how we feel, before we can even put it into words. For example, German retailer Otto Group, worked with choreographer and dancer Yaara Dolev to use Gaga dance—a movement language that originated from Israel—to reconnect its top executives with themselves. “At work, we feel the need to keep ourselves put together. It’s like hiding a monster inside a paper box,” Dolev says. Movement is one way to feel the flow and transformation of emotions through the body without (self-)judgment.
Empathy is the foundation for emotional intimacy within workplaces—a key quality that managers have the power to nurture by, for example, establishing “circles of trust,” spaces based on the principles of nonviolent communication where we feel comfortable sharing our emotions. There, we can speak without interruption, and speak in a language that is neither aggressive nor defensive.
Hosting dinners can also help create emotional intimacy with coworkers. Take silent dinners for instance. Without the encumbrance of words, guests sit around a silent table and eat together, often in a public space. The speed in which they experience a common closeness would be impossible to achieve within the social arc of small talk and business banter. Or a 15 Toasts dinner, where 15 managers or leaders are brought together to discuss timely issues within an intimate setting. Guests each make a personal toast to a predetermined topic over the course of the evening, resulting in a conversation that feels urgent, genuine, and intimate.
We are living within an epidemic of loneliness, a detachment from work, and an eroding social fabric within our democracies. Difficult times must be met with the courage to meet difficult emotions in an effort to connect better with ourselves and others. And this needs to begin in the workplace.
As we head back to the office, there’s simply no going back. VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) times require VUCA professionals. Our emotions are the real deal, unlike the image we are trying to project. If we deny them, we deprive ourselves of an essential source of transformation and growth. Facing—and living—all of our emotions, rather than just “managing” them, is the very difference between a merely productive workplace and one we wholeheartedly want to be at.
Tim Leberecht is the author of The Business Romantic and the cofounder and CEO of the House of Beautiful Business.