Emotions at work: A great servant but a TERRIBLE master

Emotions at work: A great servant but a TERRIBLE master

Scenario: You wind up in the COO’s office for the umpteenth time for “the talk”. You are once again upbraided for your reactiveness at a recent team meeting. You know they’re right, but begin your defense with, “I know I shouldn’t have said that, but he just made me sooo (fill in the blank here)! Worse yet (the deign of every professional) we may even cry.

Emotions – our gut reactions to internal or external stimuli – keep the world, and life interesting. Unemotional bosses usually have unhappy staff who have checked out, having given up on getting a rise of any kind out of their fearless leader. Passionless leaders cease to be leading at all after a while. For many of us, however, our passions regularly, spontaneously spill out in ways that may make our colleagues and employees feel discomfort, confusion and even contempt.

Change your mindset, change your world

Alfred Adler, a neo-Freudian psychotherapist, stated, “I am convinced that a person’s behavior springs from his ideas.” Stoic philosopher Epictetus said, “Men [People] are disturbed not by things, but the view which they take of them”.

If we are honest with ourselves, we can trace our every reaction, both good and negative, to our belief about something. If you believe, for instance, that “everything happens for a reason”, you will grieve a tragedy like anyone else would, but have a better hope of some day finding purpose to keep on living afterwards. If you believe that your boss has sinister motives for the un-planned meeting, you are likely to show up with your guard up. If you believe that being assigned an executive coach is punishment [which I frequently encounter] you will likely have a hard time gleaning wisdom and inspiration from such an opportunity.

Emotions are good and sacred…in their place


To avoid putting the proverbial “cart before the horse” would be, in the case of emotions, choosing our response to them rather than letting our response choose us. Having the horse before the cart is letting words fly out of our mouths, the “death look” cross our face, and our body language crumple in defeat before even taking a moment to process what’s happening inside of us. Yes, things happen lightning fast: sociologists say that within seconds of hearing something we don’t like, our faces betray us – even subtly. Far too short a time span to be contemplative about it.

It is perfectly legitimate to feel offended at racist, sexist and other -ist remarks. There certainly is a time to want to weep over our personal pains being re stimulated by workplace interactions. Some Many staff meetings are stultifyingly boring. But there must be a gap between stimulus and the kind of public emotional response that damages our credibility as a leader, delays our promotion or gets us fired. Our inner emotions cannot be what drive the machines.

So what to do with our negative feelings without being either robotic or out of control?

  1. Become self-aware. Know your triggers; people, situations, buzzwords that send you into “fight or flight” mode. Do you have unrealistic expectations about how people ought to be? Do you believe that everyone should like you?
  2. Spend some quiet time (even 10-15 minutes twice a day) just pondering the things that may be currently stressing you. How will you ever get away with that? By journaling your thoughts/feelings on your iPad, PC or phone. It will look like you’re working (which you are). You absolutely need this time before the conversations you are about to have that will elicit strong emotions in either party.
  3. Once you’ve spent time with yourself pondering and feeling your emotions – particularly the strong negative emotions that set you off, make you withdraw or otherwise take you out of your best self, it’s time to choose alternatives to fight or flight:
    • Postpone or delay a response; involve an objective ally; talk to a mentor; prepare a script of what you plan to say next; allow silence between what a person says and what you say back. Put yourself in the most powerful position possible psychologically by determining the time, venue and agenda for a difficult confrontation.
    • Ask yourself if your overreaction may be stemming from something deeper and way outside of the work situation. We often relive our childhood traumas in our work relationships.
    • Share your feelings. But do it after figuring out language that will convey them honestly but without hyperbole or being insulting. For example, “irritated” usually goes over better than “furious”.
  4. Be proactive: Choose how to respond at the meeting where you know your team member will attempt to dominate. Choose how to best approach to the conflict that might otherwise render you feeling like a 5 year old that’s in trouble. Choose whether to even respond at all! (Excuse me. We are going to table this conversation for a better time when I can respond to you more thoughtfully).
  5. Instead of having a mental scenario where you fall apart at a critical time, close your eyes and image yourself in control,  responding in a different way. Then do it. Have those conversations. If you “lose it” again, go back to steps 1 and 2 until you get it right.

I treasure my emotions. I also have a very readable face (or cartoon face, according to my daughter-in-law). But I would never make it training well over a thousand individuals over decades if I visibly overreacted to every obnoxious, rude, elitist or disgruntled trainee or let them take me out of my game plan. As a very emotional, even dramatic individual I have to credit my ability to maintain calm under pressure to age-tested evolving and very generous beliefs about people and their behaviors and motives. You’d better believe I also s c r e a m at them in my mind! And then I choose my next move.

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