Emotions in the Workplace? Oh My!
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6 Ways to Optimize Performance Through Openness & Accountability

By: Ethan Schutz

How does your organization deal with emotions? Are they acknowledged? Or, as in many organizations, are they something to “leave at the door” because they have no place at work? For most of us, we have been conditioned, directly or indirectly, to view emotions as incompatible with work. We are expected to be “professional”—meaning “without emotions” or “objective”—and to make decisions based purely on facts. The research over the past several years, however, has shown quite conclusively that emotions are very much a part of us, even at work. Decisions, particularly buying decisions, are largely made on the basis of our emotions. We buy cars and computers because we like the brand or image; we buy for status or to please the boss. Strangely, we don’t tend to connect the dots. More and more, businesses are aware that customers make decisions based on emotions and train their sales staffs in this, but don’t recognize that the staffs themselves make decisions emotionally as well. In other words, the internal workings of our organizations are as much dependent on emotions as are our customers and their choices.

And, there has been progress. The past two decades have seen a rise in the fields of emotional and social intelligence and positive psychology. These are great steps toward understanding how emotions play out in the workplace and the effects our feelings have on our outcomes. Some of the research has shown that people skills are the single biggest determinant of leader success or failure. So, we have some useful information about how organizations really work.

But something’s missing. We can assess the emotional intelligence of people. We can assess the social intelligence of people. We can present information showing how it is in everyone’s interest to be more adept at dealing with emotions in the workplace. And yet, we still struggle with making an emotionally intelligent workplace real. We still find ourselves in cultures of blame, being offended, hurt feelings, jealousy, complaining, unhealthy competition, and people feeling disrespected. Why?

The answer lies in what we do after we assess and research. It is one thing to know how emotionally and socially intelligent we are now. It is another thing to change that. First, self-awareness is vital. Without being aware of oneself, it is hard to make any changes. What is needed is to work with the emotions and to do things differently with other people, two skills we emphasis greatly in our programs.

These are usually the last two things people want to do. And, indeed, most approaches for working with these issues avoid these two—the focus is on assessment and individual coaching. This can be effective to a degree and feels safer and easier both for people in organizations and for the consultants and coaches offering these services. But more is needed to create sustainable, emotionally and socially intelligent corporate cultures. To paint the picture in extreme terms, Edie Seashore, past president of NTL Institute, says, “Individual coaching is the death of the group. Working with a single person, you can’t see how his behavior affects the whole system.”1 The system is the product of everyone’s behavior and emotions, not just one or a selected few.

While coaching is helpful, it is not often enough. To change people’s emotions and to help them increase their capacity to respond more intelligently, we have to work with people’s emotions while they are with the people they interact with. Picture this: a manager has a hard time with his boss. When he is with her, he feels overly controlled and often gets argumentative or wants to leave. He becomes irrational. The common solution to this situation these days is coaching, where the manager is coached how to deal with the boss without the boss being present. The manager is then expected to work things out with the boss using the knowledge gained in the coaching. While this can certainly achieve some results, it tends to breed dependence on the coach—when another situation arises, the coach is called in to help in a similar way.

What is important in communication training for this issue is to deal with it directly with both the manager and boss present, and other members of their team or workgroup who are part of the system. The opportunity is made for everyone to contribute to a solution and, in particular, for the boss to learn about her effect on the manager and the ways in which she may be contributing to the outcome. This allows for a much fuller understanding of the situation, more support for all people involved, and the likelihood that the key issues will be surfaced.

While the method of bringing people together and working through the emotional difficulties can vary—it can be coaching plus group work or facilitated full group sessions—the key is to help people work on their emotions while they are having them and with the people they interact with. The results of this type of communication training can make profound changes in the workplace, something worth a positive emotion.

1 Strategy + Business
November 30, 2006 / Winter 2006 / Issue 45 (originally published by Booz & Company)
Masters of the Breakthrough Moment
by Sally Helgesen