Let’s welcome emotions, even at work

Jan 16, 2021 | Impact makers

What should we do with our emotions at work? If we’re not used to showing them, or recognizing them in others, it’s because we’re used to seeing them as something that’s an “aside” from our ability to think. So thanks to their complexity and unpredictability, they become something reserved for the private sphere, by default. Even when the boundaries between our private and professional lives blurred, it seemed more to make sense to keep them private: if a feeling managed to escape, it caused embarrassment, so needed to be hidden. But in reality, neuroscientists have proven that it’s impossible to think without feeling:

Lots of people think that we are thinking beings that feel, but biologically speaking we are emotional creatures that think.

It’s what Jill Bolte Taylor outlined in her book “In the garden of the mind”. It means that our ability to think and our ability to feel are intrinsically linked, and our ability to act is a consequence of that.

If we were to ask our human resource teams “where” emotions meet corporate roles, you’d see two areas emerge: “soft” areas and caring for employee wellbeing. The first category has been gaining ground in recent years. It’s about understanding the value behind a company, but also the soft skills, or human skills, that enhance a person’s performance. When we use the term “soft”, we tend to think that of something that’s less essential than a “hard” skill. But it triggers the feelings dilemma again. They are difficult to identify and measure, above all in areas where it’s important to simplify complex situations, where we feel we can’t give ground to things we can’t control. It’s much harder to debate the value of hard numbers, but what about when we talk about attitudes or behaviors?

They increase the complexity. They are already there and over the past year we haven’t been able to ignore them. But we still need to agree on a shared glossary and define processes that can make sense of them.

It’s easier to consider them when we talk about employee wellbeing: activities dedicated to helping people feel better at work. They can help people be professionally mobile, connecting work to personal aspirations, linking career challenges to work-life balance. It’s all about observing how people “feel” – something that’s on the rise at a time when there’s a tsunami of new behaviors, where nothing has stayed the same. When companies do this, they allow people to go beyond their professional boundaries, supporting where needed and protecting energy that fuels thinking and productivity.

It’s a social responsibility that companies are expressing more often. It’s a win-win situation. Nobody loses out, in fact some needs that are traditionally met in the public sector are now being met by private initiatives. However, once feelings have been identified, it’s more challenging to create a system that contains them. Researchers call this the “spill over”. It brings us back to our initial question: what can we do with all these feelings at work?

The reason we have so many neurones dedicated to reflecting on others’ feelings (mirror neurones) is that emotions are at the centre of our relationships and sense of self. Neuroscience is proving that they are intrinsically connected to our ability to reason, understand and think. They are very low on the Maslow pyramid: when we ignore them and neglect them, they can compromise everything else. But isn’t that how we’ve done things for decades? The modern workplace has flourished without making space for feelings at all. Yes, but how much has it cost us? The emotions that we’ve left behind are the same ones we’ve then been going back to when we need to be creative, innovative, diverse. They’re the feelings we need to take a step forward when the status quo changes. And when we try to face change while using just one half of our brain, we fail.

Feelings are always there. They’re at the heart of our intellect. When we get familiar with what that really means, we can break down the stereotypes that we’ve used until now. Everything that we squeeze into these low-traffic areas suffer when we over-simplify things through incomplete stereotypes. When we welcome emotions, they can enrich our narrative at work and reduce stigmas that hide behind words such as fear, tiredness, happiness, sadness and guilt. Perhaps Covid has accelerated the process for us, which could result in double to resources available to us. Let’s welcome those feelings.

This post was originally by our CEO Riccarda Zezza for the Alley Oop blog on Il Sole 24 Ore. To read the original blog in Italian, please click here

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