April 28, 2013 / GROWTH IS OXYGEN
April 28, 2013
Emotions in the workplace are a touchy and often untouchable subject. Few of us know how to effectively handle our emotions and even less about how to deal with other people’s. Some companies believe people should be encouraged to promote their individuality: tattoos, hair colors and styles, clothing—even political opinions are not only tolerated but encouraged. However, other companies try to prevent or discourage individuality by controlling their employees’ behavior through rules and procedures.
Anne Kreamer’s book, It’s Always Personal: Emotion In the New Workplace, addresses emotions in the workplace, and uses scientific studies to show that exploring and expressing authentic feelings at work create happier and more successful employees. Knowing that principles like these are easier said than done, we wanted to know how Anne applies her findings to her personal life. Here’s what she had to say…
How do you navigate your emotions in the workplace?
I’d like to say that there is an easy, one-stop solution for navigating emotions in the workplace, but alas, it’s complicated. The skills a waiter uses to handle a rowdy party of eight, for instance, are very different from those an engineer uses in developing a wind farm or those an entrepreneur uses to start a home design consulting business. But from occupation to occupation and workplace to workplace, the underlying human fabric—the web of interpersonal connection and conflict—is similar. Emotions are omnipresent in our work even though work and emotion are rarely discussed and analyzed together, but rather as if they existed in strictly separate worlds. Emotions don’t turn on and off like a top—they are multidimensional and more like a revolving 3-D double helix than a simple x/y graph. Emotions are slippery, changing from moment to moment and office to hallway, according to permutations of gender, ethnicity, education, and age. They’re how we balance empathy with dollars-and-cents business directives. They shape the cultural norms of an organization. They drive competition or collaboration. They are the worries or thrills that wake you up in the middle of the night or the opportunities that get you out of bed in the morning.
Emotions also operate like rivers—sometimes a river runs smoothly, sometimes broad and slow, sometimes narrow and fast, sometimes straight and sometimes with zigzagging switchbacks, with invigorating or terrifying rapids, and with eddies and backwaters. Emotions can be ignored or dammed up and then spill over in a disastrous flood. We can, however, engineer and guide their course so that they flow productively—used, if you will, for irrigating our crops and generating our power. The trick is in learning to understand that emotions are idiosyncratic—that what works to keep one person’s emotional river running smoothly will be different from what works for another. I have a variety to strategies in the book for ways different personalities can respond to anger, fear or anxiety.
What inspired you to write about emotions in the workplace?
I wrote the book because of a personal experience. Years ago when colleagues and I were celebrating the successful completion of a long-term negotiation, the chairman of my company called. I thought he was calling to congratulate us on a job well done, but instead he was calling to berate me for failing to make the stock price of the parent company rise with the announcement of the deal. I went from cloud nine to abject misery, and tears(!), in 90 seconds. I felt ashamed that I had cried in front of my colleagues, so I wanted to explore why women, by and large, felt this way when they cried at work. That simple question led me on a two-year journey, where I traveled from coast to coast interviewing over 200 people trying to get a handle of what Americans were feeling on the job. I also probed the neurobiological basis for emotion as well as our cultural biases, and what I discovered was fascinating.
How has the book impacted your life personally?
The book has given me the opportunity to connect with amazing people across the country with a wide range of experience in extraordinary professions. And in every conversation I become more and more convinced that all of us are struggling with a work-life balance. The conventional wisdom used to be that we brought home the emotions we couldn’t express at work and while that is still true, what’s new is that home life, with all its messy, complicated emotional currents, has become inextricably and undeniably woven into the workplace. Helping people figure out ways to manage this new amorphous state has become a top priority for me.
My conversations with all of these people has inspired my new book, Plan C, about the unprecedented professional adaptability required of everyone in the 21st century. How do we evolve and stay engaged in our working lives?
What reaction and impact has the book received?
The book has resonated with people all over the world and it is being translated into Russian, Chinese and Korean. It’s interesting to me that around the globe we’re all struggling with the emotional demands of 24/7 working life.
In your book you talk about identifying your emotional type. Can you tell us more?
In conjunction with J. Walter Thompson, I created a new diagnostic aide, something I call WEEP (Workplace Emotion Evaluation Profile), designed to help people identify their default emotional approach to stressful situations. The idea of the tool is to give you some useful insights into how you and different people—your bosses, your peers, and your underlings—are differently predisposed to act and deal with strong emotions at work. With WEEP you can identify the ways you tend to deal with workplace emotion and get a fix on your level of emotional resiliency—and, I believe, supplement your natural style with strategies that can allow you to be a more effective employee or manager.
What does creativity have to do with emotion?
The emotion of happiness is deeply connected to its cousin, creativity.
Barbara Frederickson, a psychologist at University of North Carolina, has studied creativity and found that positive emotions open our minds and hearts. She’s found a correlation between positive emotions and an increased level of brain activity that encouraged the participant to problem-solve in creative ways. Emotionally negative content produces a narrow, constrained focus, while positive feelings stimulate areas in the brain that increase dopamine levels, particularly in the prefrontal cortex which is the area that is thought to underlie better cognitive performance. Negative emotions spur quick action responses—positive ones are more enduring and expansive—rippling out. Sigal Barsade, a Wharton business school expert on emotion in the workplace, says positive moods prompt more flexible decision-making and wider search behavior and greater analytical precision. Positive work cultures are more willing to engage in risky ventures, more accepting of minority opinions, and more willing to use decentralized control. This is why work teams in relatively better moods produced higher profits for their companies and reported higher customer satisfaction ratings.
What helps you personally maintain a healthy work-life balance?
I go for a walk. I’ve often suggested that people walk to work, take public transportation, and in general, wander about to see how real people and consumers are behaving and spending their time. If you never take the time to fill your creative well, you’ll have nothing to contribute. Wandering around—observing, talking to strangers, taking pictures, inhaling the rich diversity of unfamiliar life, may feel unproductive or even wasteful, but the opposite is true. Inspiration is found in the unpredictable hurly-burly of messy, real life.
The essayist, Verlyn Klinkenborg, connected Charles Dickens’ extraordinary creative output to his nightly walking. “He is lost in a kind of mental ventriloquism,” he wrote, “calling up his emotions and studying them. Every night he walked a dozen miles, without which, he said, ‘I should just explode and perish.’ Under the pseudonym Boz, Dickens wrote, ‘There is nothing we enjoy more than a little amateur vagrancy, walking through London as though ‘the whole were an unknown region to our wandering mind.’”
How can companies encourage their employees to be more compassionate?
Compared to the big negative emotions (anger, fear, anxiety), compassion and its cousin, empathy, fulfill a very different but nonetheless essential human evolutionary function.
Empathy and compassion can act as balms for others in the grip of fear and anger—particularly in the workplace, when they’ve been triggered by psychological rather than physical blows. But even with cognitive aggression, research has demonstrated that all it takes is for one person to stand up on behalf of someone being abused to change the entire workplace culture. When so many of us work in teams (or many teams) empathy is a powerful lubricant for collaborative behavior. Our ability to envision something like another person’s anxiety about making a huge presentation and thus offer them encouragement or support, for instance, may boost their confidence while simultaneously curbing our potential impatience with what we might see as their perhaps less-than-professional behavior. Empathy at work can promote a level of altruism that inspires us to stay late helping a young colleague make a breakthrough on a project or take on an additional workload to help a colleague with a sick child. Imagine the benefit to an organization where employees are encouraged to support colleagues going through tough times or where the reality of work life balance is led from the top.
Encouraging this kind of compassion is good for the bottom line. Workplaces that encourage caring improve the immunity systems of their employees—and with an annual $63 billion in lost work and productivity due to illness, this is a big deal. Empathy can be bolstered, from something as simple as reading a work of fiction, to meditation.
You inspire a lot of people. Who inspires you?
It sounds Pollyanna-ish, but I’m inspired by everyone who gets up every day and does what needs to be done with grace and kindness. Sure, people like Hillary Clinton, or Sheryl Sandberg, or Emmanuelle Riva, the 86-year old star of Amour, are inspiring but it’s truly women like my 94 year-old neighbor, Emily, who invites the downtrodden into her home that fill me with awe. I often ask myself, “what would Emily do?” and that sets me on the right course.
What are your plans for the future?
I hope to keep writing and traveling the country meeting everyday people making sense of their lives. And spending every chance I get to hike outdoors!
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