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Tough Emotions


September 14, 2021

Interesting perspective. Expressing tough emotions in a culture not receptive to them can be a CLM. Given how many times I had discussions about tough emotions, I like to think that I fostered a culture where people working for/with me felt comfortable airing their emotions.

Now that we’re well into the 21st century, most executives and entrepreneurs have finally caught onto the importance of workplace culture. At last, there’s broad acceptance that an office’s particular social dynamics don’t just improve or impair employee wellbeing—they affect the bottom line. However, our ideas about what constitutes a “good” workplace culture can be simplistic. We can mistake a good culture for one where the workers are outwardly cheerful and interpersonal friction is rare. If everyone seems happy, mustn’t that mean the culture is good?

I’ve written often about the “tyranny of positivity”—the tendency of people and organizations to mark pleasant emotions as “good” and difficult ones as “bad.” Such a perspective is rigid, and rigidity in the face of change and complexity is toxic. Even savvy leaders may find themselves dismissing the reservations of their team so that the company can “just get on with it.” And what’s worse, they’ll sometimes abuse the concept of workplace culture by accusing those who raise concerns of not being a “culture fit.” Among myriad other misdeeds, the much publicized case of the Theranos corporation shows how CEO Elizabeth Holmes effectively concealed massive fraud by sidelining critics within the company for their (well-justified!) “negativity.”

This is, of course, an extreme example, but it underlines the importance of welcoming difficult emotions in the workplace. For an organization to succeed, the staff needs to feel empowered to speak up when something worries them, even if these worries aren’t easy for their colleagues and superiors to hear. Problems can’t be addressed unless they’re acknowledged. Furthermore, concealing unpleasant feelings beneath a veil of positivity doesn’t make those feelings go away. Quite the opposite! Just as the conscious attempt to ignore the fat slice of chocolate cake in the refrigerator will only cause you to obsess over it, implicitly or explicitly telling your staff to hide their concern, dissatisfaction, or even anger will only cause those feelings to fester and grow. It’s what psychologists call the amplification effect, and it can disable workplaces from the inside out.

As uncomfortable as tough emotions can be, it’s vital that companies find ways for their employees to meaningfully express them. Don’t shrink from the hard conversations. Don’t insist that everyone hide their true feelings behind a smiling veneer. Rather, recognize these feelings as signposts that point to real issues and help organizations steer toward success. All my best, Susan

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