Should the workplace be an emotion-free zone?

“Leave your emotions at the door!”

This has been the unspoken mantra of the corporate world for so long that it might as well be printed in the induction materials.

For many years, I bought into this expectation. After spending five years training my mind in the hyper-rational disciplines of Science and Law, it made perfect sense to me that emotions should be excluded from the workplace.

But since then, I’ve started to wonder. In prohibiting the expression of emotion in the workplace, what is the cost? Would it be such a bad thing if your emotions were to sneak into work with you once in a while?

I’ve since concluded that not only is it unrealistic to expect people to “leave their emotions at the door” – it’s unhealthy. In a world where untreated mental health conditions are said to cost organisations approximately $10.9 billion per year (and that’s just in Australia), we must learn to become more aware of our own emotions, more sensitive to those of others, and more skilled at managing both.

This post looks at three reasons that emotions matter in the workplace and some tips for managing them more effectively.

1. Emotions are logical Balance of emotion and logic

When I first heard this, I was mystified. What a beautiful paradox.

Emotions arise due to a logical process that involves the interpretation of information or events to produce some sort of emotional response. The interpretation may be flawed, or based on incomplete or inaccurate information, but the process itself – and therefore the resulting emotion – is logical.

And because emotions are logical, they can provide us with valuable information about why we, and our colleagues, see the world as we do.

In negotiation, we teach people to ‘dig for interests’ – to identify the underlying motivations for what people say they want or don’t want. When emotions arise in a negotiation, they can provide valuable and vital clues about what people really care about (their interests), as well as the intensity of those interests.

Emotions can also signal relationship issues. To learn more about the five core concerns that tend to trigger strong negative emotions, read Beyond Reason: Using Emotions as you Negotiate by Harvard University’s Roger Fisher and Daniel Shapiro.

2. Emotions are ‘better out than in’

Emotions have a predictable trajectory: they rise, they peak and then they fall.

Trying to suppress a strong emotion is like putting a lid on a pressure cooker. If the steam isn’t released, it will build up and explode. Messy.

In our Getting Past Conflict workshops, we help clients to defuse emotional tension in a constructive and systematic manner. Many are apprehensive at first about acknowledging, let alone enquiring about, their colleagues’ emotions. On the other hand, it can be extremely difficult to work with someone who denies or suppresses those emotions. The classic passive-aggressive response of “Don’t worry about it – it’s fine” is a far greater threat to a relationship than a moment of unfiltered emotion.

3. Emotions play a significant role in building relationship and influencing others

We connect with others through emotion.

In the 1980s, researchers in Parma, Italy, were studying the neural activity of macaque monkeys when they made a fortuitous discovery. When a monkey saw a researcher pick up a peanut, it activated the same neurons (brain cells) in the monkey’s brain as if the monkey had picked up the peanut itself. It’s as if the monkey was having a mini version of the researcher’s experience in its own mind.

This phenomenon occurs due to ‘mirror neurons’, which are thought to be the biological basis of empathy. The ability to tap into what someone else is feeling occurs directly, without being processed through our rational mind.

And if that’s not enough, there is increasing evidence about the role emotions play in influencing others. We’ve known this for quite some time. In the 4th century B.C., Aristotle described the three means of persuasion as ethos (character), logos (logic) and pathos (emotion) (from Rhetoric). More recent research in the fields of advertising and marketing confirm that emotion is a strong driver of buying behaviour.


So how can we learn to embrace emotions in the workplace? People holding hands

First, we need to become aware of them. It can be hard to identity our own emotions let alone someone else’s. That’s where the development of emotional intelligence comes in. (Watch Pixar’s Inside Out for a crash course!)

The next step is to reframe the presence of emotion as an opportunity rather than a threat. Years ago, when I was training to become a coach, I was working with a mentor who had been assigned to coach me. In our first session, she had me crying within the first 5 minutes. While I was initially embarrassed, I’ll never forget what she said next: “Ah, now we’re getting somewhere.” In that moment, I realised that my emotions had guided her to what I really cared about; something deeper that I would never get to through my typical intellectually-driven analysis.

Since then, I’ve learned to be grateful when I feel emotion or see it in others. Instead of feeling uncomfortable, I think, “Here’s an opportunity to find out what’s going on beneath the surface.” Or “Here’s an opportunity for genuine connection.” It can be liberating to experience emotion without the fear of ‘losing it’.

So when you’re feeling your emotions rising at work, ask yourself:

  • What am I feeling? (This engages your rational brain, which will help to apply the handbrake on any inappropriate outburst.)
  • What happened to trigger this emotion?
  • What am I telling myself about this situation (my story) to provoke this emotion? Is it true?

If it’s true, then perhaps this is an opportunity for you to share what’s going on for you so that you can work through any issues. If it’s not true – or if you’re not sure – you could ask more questions. Be curious and open. And if it’s not true, then clarify what’s really going on.

When you notice someone else’s emotions rising to the surface – or perhaps they’re not there yet, but you sense a shift in the emotional temperature:

  • Check in with them: How are they feeling about the conversation? (Not everybody will be able to answer this question immediately. Give them time to figure it out.)
  • What happened to trigger their emotion?
  • What else may be going on for them?

And always be mindful of how your behaviour might affect the emotions of others. As the poet Maya Angelou famously said:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

To learn more about interest based negotiation, we recommend the book “Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher & William Ury.”

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