Aren't emotions just inconvenient?

Aren't emotions just inconvenient?

By Hettie Brittz

I admit to feeling that way often, especially in a work environment. I can get pretty emotional, socially, with family, with things I'm passionate about, like mountain climbing (I've cried over a pretty flower in the Swiss Alps) or at births and deaths. So, don't get me wrong – I'm not the stoic type. However, I'm willing to admit that when a colleague brings emotional matters to a formal meeting, something rises up within me. I've caught myself thinking many of these thoughts:

  • Can we just get back to work? That's what we're here for.
  • Emotions slow down decisions and distort them.
  • Emotions diminish people's capacity to think rationally.
  • Emotions are used to manipulate others.
  • There is a time and place for emotions and it's not now in the boardroom. Emotions belong in the tearoom, in your own time.

This thinking does not purely come from having experienced regret after emotional decisions or hearing other executives complain about colleagues who regularly become incapacitated by surges of emotionalism. This attitude comes from my individual EI DNA (my default emotional habits). I am a Contra-Pine tree and my social profile is that of a Box-Palm: the emotional talker, deep feeler, intuitive connector. However, my work profile is double task-oriented. I want to get both the big picture and the details right. I want to accomplish the end goal no matter what.  It's from there – from that drive for success – that comes the intolerance to emotions in the workplace.

Anybody who understands the Tall Trees personality type model could take one look at my report “signature” and predict this, especially when they glance over to my life view profile, where, once again, the people-oriented tree types, Palm Tree and Pine Tree, are noticeably absent. My life view is that of a Box-Rose: “Strive to achieve, aim high, and get stuff done already!”

Many who have worked with me will tell you that it's not easy to work with somebody who has this view. I am not proud of this aspect of my personality. I have had feedback that I'm not a nice person when I'm under pressure. (The exact words were, “You stop being a Christian when you’re late.) Those words were like a bucket of ice over my head and it made me realize that just because I think emotions are inconvenient doesn't mean that they are unimportant.

If I could work only with Rose Bushes and Pine-Roses, this attitude could be successful. Roses avoid emotions and seldom express them, until regardless of the true underlying emotion, anger spills out. Pine-Roses can pressure-cook their hidden feelings even longer than Roses, and tend to release them as a passive-aggressive stream of steam rather than one big blast. However, such a team, consisting of a Box-Rose (me), a pure Rose Bush, and a Pine-Rose would be advised to appoint a relational person ASAP to ensure that everyone arrives alive when we get to our goal.

In reality, we all work with the more relational personality types  - those with strong Palm and Pine components in their personality. A “work-only” attitude is unproductive in any relationship or team that has diverse members.

Neurological learning models and research about brain health over the past decade teach us that there is a hierarchy that determines how we operate cognitively. How well we can think, plan, and produce obviously matters much to me. So I have to pay attention to what underpins this optimal performance in myself and in my teams.

Here is what the science says about high-functioning people: They are emotionally regulated (experiencing and expressing appropriate emotions to the context they are in), they are relational (intentionally connected with others) and they are rational. What does that mean practically in a work environment? It means when a person does not feel connected in a safe relationship, they cannot experience emotional safety and will remain “dysregulated” which can mean anything from sullen and touchy to upset or raging.

To regulate is to manage one's emotions and thought in a way that aligns with the situation you are in. That may mean keeping quiet when a very important person, who holds power over your circumstances, insults you. It's in your interest not to speak up or react. In a different situation, regulation may mean the opposite: to suppress your fear of retaliation and to speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves. This ability to regulate depends on your experiences from the beginning of your life. How did people respond to my cry when I was just a baby? How readily were my needs recognized and met? Did how I felt and what I needed matter?

Without knowing, we can trigger others emotionally by creating a hostile environment that resonates with painful emotional experiences where the person was not treated in a safe and relational way. Think of a child who was yelled at often, followed by a slap in the face or a shove against the chest. Whenever a strong-voiced, extroverted colleague raises their voice with a bit too much intensity, this person may well be triggered, which would lead to them becoming dysregulated. If there is nobody to relate to safely and appropriately, this person could melt down. Rational thought as well as productivity will be unlikely to thrive in this emotionally threatening climate.

It is true for all of us, even the naturally unemotional types, that when we are triggered or anxious, and there isn't a safe person in the situation to connect with to give you strength to act appropriately, we will need such a person to fall back on after the fact. Can you see in your mind’s eye the child who is bullied on the playground and has nobody there to defend him? The moment he sees his mom at the school gate, he starts crying. What's happening there, is that he had all the painful emotions stored away until he could finally relate and connect. His mom connects with him and there's permission to release all of that sadness and despair through tears. Until that moment, this child is rationally and relationally shut down. The classes taught after the break were probably wasted and work is likely half-done or riddled with mistakes. After all, all the higher functions in the brain suffer when the lower systems are shut down by emotional overwhelm.

Transpose this into the work environment and you have workers who are underachieving, who are passively aggressive, or who start a slow coup in the tearoom because their supervisors do not create a safe emotional space in which they can relate and regulate.

Statistically speaking, any healthy and functioning company will have more people who are affected emotionally by their environment to the extent that it affects their work than people who are not affected by their social environment and who can produce excellent work, no matter how hostile their office space. The literature says so, and we see it in the data-analyses of our Tall Trees Leadership Profiles: there is a small but meaningfully higher percentage of Pines and Palms in the general population than Boxwoods and Roses. What a brilliant design! We would have been past Word War VIII if feisty Roses with their appetite for conquest were in the majority!

What does this mean? Even in the working world of those who don't think emotions matter much, emotions really do play a key part. If not your emotions, then the emotions of those people people that you work with. The EI Activator assessment and report provides you with ways to relate better and to create a foundation for a regulated and rational work environment by building rapport, creating a safe conflict resolution environment, and fostering positive company culture.

There is good news for you if emotions still seem inconvenient to you: It doesn't all depend on you being able to pass the Kleenex, to give big bear hugs, or to remember everybody's birthday so as not to offend those with a fragile sense of worth. It goes far beyond those tokens of sentiment or empathy. The exercises on your EI journey equips you with skills that fit your personality style and impact the entire atmosphere you create as a leader.

Good leaders acknowledge every team member as an important player in the game. Are you willing to learn to do that and to “play nice?” That's really what it boils down to – to understand that even on the corporate playground there are many that are more sensitive than you and I, who have a lot to offer but who will not bring their best to you and the task when you or the environment remind them of unsafe people and places in their bank of experiences.  Perhaps they were dismissed when legitimate feelings were simply called “tantrums” and were told to “grow up” instead of being invited into a place where emotions were validated.

Your EI Activator report will contain more practical tips that your personality type can implement. But let me leave you with this one: Just the phrase “Tell me more” creates a relatable space in which even the most out of control emotions will come down a notch and even the most sensitive, even paranoid co-worker will experience validation. Validation is a powerful force that helps them move from a place where their emotions send them into a frenzy to a place where their emotions become controlled and directional motivators that take them closer to their goals, which are now more likely to align with yours.

Does the effort sound worth it? When you are ready to commit to this journey of working with rather than against emotions, your individualized EI Report will be waiting for you!

Emotions are enmeshed in the neural networks of reason.

Antonio Damasio


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