Why We Should Welcome Emotions at Work

Do emotions have a place at work? In conversation with Deloitte Chief Well-Being Officer Jen Fisher, psychologist Susan David explains why it’s beneficial to make space for emotions, and tips for honing your emotional agility.

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“To thrive in this uncertain world,” notes Jen Fisher, “we could all use a little more emotional agility.” As Deloitte’s Chief Well-Being Officer, Fisher hosts the WorkWell podcast series featuring interviews with leading experts from across the spectrum of work, health, and self-development. In this episode, Susan David explores why our emotional life can’t (and shouldn’t) be put on pause when we clock in. David is an award-winning Harvard Medical School psychologist and author of the bestselling Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life

Jen: There is a myth that positive emotions are obviously good emotions and difficult emotions are bad and we should avoid them. Is this true and is it even possible to avoid difficult emotions? 

Susan: I think there could be nothing further than the truth. [The idea that] Good emotions are about joy and happiness, and bad emotions are somehow about anger or anxiety, frustration, and they should be pushed aside. This is one of the largest misunderstandings of emotions and really, this has real cost. It has cost to the individual because when people see their emotions as good or bad, what they start doing is engaging and hustling with their emotions. I shouldn’t feel that, that’s a bad emotion, I should be grateful for my experience. And this, in the longer term, is actually associated with lower levels of well-being, high levels of mental distress, and also feeling stuck and being stuck, because if you are in a situation where for instance you are feeling bored in the workplace, and you said to yourself I shouldn’t feel that, at least I have got a job, I should be grateful, then what is that doing? It’s not allowing you to actually recognize that you need greater levels of growth and learning at work, and so then you are not going toward that thing that’s important, that value. So, you are actually not able to be agile and to be fruitful and to bring the best of yourself forward. 

[The idea that] good emotions are about joy and happiness, and bad emotions are somehow about anger or anxiety, frustration, and they should be pushed aside. This is one of the largest misunderstandings of emotions.

When we look at the workplace, this similar principle is operating. If we think about organizations that say things like “We want people to be innovative” or “We want people to be collaborative”, there is no innovation that is possible without potential failure and without the difficult emotions that come with potential failure. There is no true collaboration that takes place without conflict or dissenting views, and the emotions that come with that. So, for all of those organizations and leaders and teams that say “We want these outcomes,” whether it’s collaboration or agility or creativity, what those organizations need to be doing is then opening themselves up to the reality that those often tough emotions are part and parcel of being effective in an organizational setting.

When we think about the powerful change that happens in the world, in society, that doesn’t come about because everyone is positive. That comes about because people say “Hey that’s unjust, I feel angry at how I am being treated.” And so these emotions, like anger, that are often seen, again, as being negative are actually the catalyst for some of the most powerful changes that we can have in society. The capacity to be capacious and courageous enough to go toward those difficult emotions is often what brings us to better ways of being in the world. 

Jen: How did we get here? I mean, especially in the workplace.

Susan: I am going to give you two answers to these questions, and they are like me connecting with a nerd part of myself. One, actually is a gendered response: If you look historically, and I am talking over educational systems of many hundreds of years, what you often had is situations where formal education was open to males and what was able to be taught formally were math and the sciences. What then happened is these emotions, the things that feel softer, were actually relegated out of formal institutional learning and therefore very often [out of] formal workplaces. So, what you will end up having is this really interesting dichotomy where organizations become associated with goals and outcomes and science and logic, and emotions get sidelined. 

Another aspect to this comes about in psychology. If you think about the process and learning of psychology, often we have had this idea that, well there is Freud, and Freud [talks about] the subconscious—it’s very difficult to understand, very difficult to measure. So you find a move toward behaviorism, and behaviorism is, if we tap this thing twice and the dog wags its tail, then we have measured that. There is this whole systematization of psychology that becomes focused around what’s easily measurable. 

Now, why does this matter in organizations? What we have in organization is actually fairly toxic organizational structures that then become focused on what can we measure, what output, what goals—it’s really the industrial mechanization of human endeavors that is literally bound up to the Industrial Revolution. What that does is it segments out of the workplace the beautiful messy humanity, the gorgeousness of a difficult conversation, where we both come to the table and it’s tough, but we get something out of it and we move forward. So, I really believe that for organizations and for us as people to be in systems that are resilient and capacious, we need to actually make way for these difficult emotions, and to understand the real importance of these difficult emotions in the workplace and beyond. Because truly, when you look at the future world of work, these aspects of humanity that actually differentiate us from what can be automated are the currency of now and in the future, and are critical to our own well-being. 

Understanding Our Emotions

Jen: What is emotional agility, and how does it better help us understand our emotions?

Susan: Emotional agility is, I think, one of the most critical skills that we can have as human beings. Every aspect of how we love, live, how we parent, how we lead is ultimately driven by how we deal with ourselves, our inner world. 

The short answer is that emotional agility is basically the capacity to be healthy with ourselves, to be healthy with our thoughts, our emotions, and the stories that we have. The longer answer is that there are core components to emotional agility that are really critical to this capacity to be healthy. The first is the ability to show up to our emotions with a level of gentle acceptance and compassion, and this really circles back to the beginning of our conversation, this idea that there aren’t good and bad emotions. If you start hustling with yourself and start [thinking you should] only have “positive” emotions or see your emotions as positive, or only think good thoughts? Number one, it doesn’t work. When we try to push aside these difficult emotions, there is actually an amplification effect. You said [to] yourself, I am really upset with my colleague, I am just not going to say anything, I am just going to push aside this difficult experience, and then you are in a meeting and you’re snarky and let the person know how you feel, because you have got the amplification of this emotion. 

Jen: We have all been there. 

Susan: We have all been there in a meeting, we have all been there at the Thanksgiving table, we have all been there. So, the first part of emotional agility is really the ability to be able and compassionate and kind in the way we show up to our difficult emotions. Instead of hustling with them or pushing them aside, we just accept them: This is what I feel right now. I am in a situation in which I need to be compassionate with the fact that I am bored or I am anxious or I am feeling undermined, and I can be in that space in a way that makes room for that difficult experience. So, that’s a showing-up part.

If you start hustling with yourself and start [thinking you should] only have “positive” emotions or see your emotions as positive, or only think good thoughts? Number one, it doesn’t work.

 A second part of it is about bringing a level of curiosity and mindfulness to the emotion, so the emotion doesn’t own you or the story doesn’t own you. What does that look like? It’s about noticing your thoughts, your emotions, and stories for what they are, they are thoughts, they are emotions, they are stories, they are not fact. Another part of emotional agility is about asking yourself Who do I want to be in this moment, what are my values so that I can actually bring myself forward and not be hooked by this difficult experience

The short answer is that emotional agility is about being healthy with ourselves. The longer answer is that emotional agility is the ability to be with ourselves in ways that are curious, compassionate, and courageous so that we can move forward in the direction of our values, in how we bring ourselves to the world, and this is a critical capacity for all of us.

Strategies to Improve Your Emotional Agility

Jen: It sounds like emotional agility is a skill that we can develop, or at least get better at, and so there must be strategies in order to do that. 

Susan: Yeah, there absolutely are. I will give you just a couple and you can tell me if you want more. A strategy, for instance, in showing up to our difficult emotions, is bringing self-compassion to our experience. Now in organizations, self-compassion is often associated with these myths: “If I am kind to myself, it means I am not being honest, I am being weak, or I am being lazy, or I am not cutting it, or I am letting myself off the hook.” But actually self-compassion is one of the most powerful ways we can be in the world, and rather than it being associated with those poor outcomes, self-compassion is actually associated with greater levels of honesty and resilience and motivation. Imagine you go to a restaurant and you have a little child, crawling, 12 or 18 months old, and you’re eating and your child goes and wanders off. What the child does is it gleefully wanders off, but then looks back and sees you and says to themselves, my caregiver, my parent, my mother, my father is there, I am safe, and so the child takes two or three more steps, giggle, giggle, giggle, turns back, looks, sees the parents still there, giggle, giggle, giggle, and wanders off again. What is really going on here? What is happening is that the child has a secure attachment. The child has the knowledge that they are safe, and it is the safety that then allows the child to learn and to take risks and to explore. 

Now, that analogy is one we can apply to self-compassion. Self-compassion, when you are kind to yourself, when you say to yourself, I love you, I will be there for you, enables you to put your hand up for a task that is scary. It enables you to take a risk in using your voice at work. It enables you to not have all the answers with your team, because you know that you will be there for you, and that is one of the most powerful ways you can be in the world. 

Self-compassion, when you are kind to yourself, when you say to yourself, I love you, I will be there for you, enables you to put your hand up for a task that is scary. It enables you to take a risk in using your voice at work.

So, how do we get more self-compassionate? We get self-compassionate by recognizing that we are human and we are in unprecedented times and I know that word is overused but it is true and that we are doing the best we can, with who we are, with what we have got, and with the resources that we have right now, and reminding ourselves of that reality is really, really important. When you are going into a difficult meeting, when you are going on to a call and you are struggling [with] exhaustion, putting your hand onto your heart and reminding yourself that you exist and that you are human is really powerful. This is a skill that we teach physicians when they are going into a conversation with a patient or to give bad news, this ability to ground yourself in your humanity is really critical. That’s one practical strategy. 

Another way we can be self-compassionate is, when we are beating ourselves up, to imagine the inner child that is there in all of us, the child that needs fun, the child that needs to be seen, and to play and to have joy and to just ask ourselves What does the child in me need right now? The child might need rest, the child might need to have a picnic on the floor and to just ride around with another child in one’s life, and tickle, and be, and this is really important. 

Those are strategies around showing up for our difficult emotions with gentle acceptance, but stepping out is when we recognize that our emotions don’t need to call the shots, our thoughts don’t need to call the shots. Again, these are data, not directives. Stepping out is one of the most powerful strategies that we need in the workplace. Anytime you are putting yourself into your clients’ shoes, anytime you are saying this is how I feel, but what does this person in front of me need right now, or what does the situation [call for], what you are doing is you’re starting to engage in the capacity to step out. Let me give you an example of this. Imagine you are really upset and really angry because your telephone bill is wrong yet again, and you finally have gotten hold of another human being and you are going to give that person a piece of your mind. You are angry, you are outraged, and you get this person on the phone. As you start talking to them, there is that little voice that goes off inside your head that says, if you tell this person exactly how you feel right now, they will conveniently lose your file. This is not a productive way to be right now. 

So, what is this? All of us as human beings have this capacity to both feel and be immersed in our emotions and in our stories and in our thoughts, but also to helicopter above that. In other words, step out of those thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Note, we are not ignoring them, we are not pushing them aside, we are not engaging in forced or false positivity. Rather, what we are doing is bringing to bear a different part of ourselves, a meta view, this observer view. So, we can do the same when we are in difficult situations in the workplace. I can feel really stuck, really stuck. I don’t know what to do with my team or in my job. One of the most remarkable experiences that I have had as a psychologist is saying to someone “You feel really stuck, what do you think you should do right now?” and the person of course says, “How would I know? I am stuck. By definition, I don’t have the answers, that’s why I am asking you for some solution.” Then you say to the person, okay, let’s bring someone imaginary into the room. Let’s bring a mentor, one of the wisest people you know, maybe someone who really cares for you and loves you, and let’s imagine having a conversation with a person about what it is that they recommend for you right now. Remarkably, this individual starts saying that they recommend that I have a tough conversation, or they recommend that I just lay my cards on the table with the team and tell the team I don’t have the answers. And suddenly, they have got all of these solutions. 

This interview has been condensed. To listen to or read the full interview from the WorkWell podcast, go to www.deloitte.com.