Since my TEDx talk Emotions at Work 4-5 years ago, I have been writing a few articles about how emotions can have a very useful place in companies and add value to innovation strategies. What I haven’t written about yet is what I’ve been doing these past few years in organisations to enable emotionally healthy cultures. In this “3-tips” article I am sharing the key messages I use in many workshops and trainings (whether at Airbus, Rotterdam School of Management, European Central Bank or TNO), some obvious reminders, some counter-intuitive notions and some challenging practices.

1. Emotion is data – don’t kill the messenger

In our hyper analytical, data driven world, emotions have been deemed irrational things that are counter-productive in the workplace where they do not belong. Right? Wrong! Why listen to emotions as data and source of drive and movement in the organisation rather than pushing them aside as nuisance? You may not be fully aware of it, or not give emotions their full credit, but most innovation strategies are boosted by emotions.

Because emotions change us physiologically, and impact our performance (say public speaking for example) we may not like them and wish to get rid of them (even joy can be denied in workplace and social contexts). Emotions are actually misunderstood internal messengers that alert you to something.

Understanding the message is key to better decision-making. Without going through the whole explanation (some earlier articles have done so already) here are in simple terms the messages your emotions are trying to convey:

> Anger is a great motivator for change and can be channeled in very powerful speeches.
 « This situation is not as it should be (according to my value and belief system), I need to do something to change this. »
> Sadness is a very social / community gathering emotion. Where you get your support from is up to you, but don’t ignore sadness for too long or it will drive you to depression.
« I am feeling smaller/weaker/lacking at the moment and I need to find ways to get support to build myself back up. »
> Fear accelerates action, gives a sense of urgency. A healthy dose of fear can help teams take risks / innovate without freezing their creativity.
« I sense or anticipate a danger / potential negative consequence to myself (physical, emotional, status, career, money etc.) and I need to find solutions to get back to safety. »
> Disgust is often ignored but acts powerfully in the background. Ensure you are not confusing the source of toxicity (a behavior) with the person.
« What I am observing here (thing, someone’s or group’s behavior) is toxic (unhealthy) to me so I need to find ways to put some distance between the source of toxicity and myself so as not to be contaminated. »
> Surprise quickly directs your attention to enable better informed decisions. Feel surprised and investigate, rather than going into fear of the unknown straight away.
« I sense something new in my environnement, I need to pay attention now to assess it. »
> Joy rewards and motivates individuals and consolidates communities together. Own your joy process, don’t wait for others to be the source of your joy. You know yourself better, so you can trigger it easily.
« This situation satisfies me, I want more of that, and I want to share it with my group. »

Hearing the message doesn’t necessarily mean you have to follow it. Your emotion only needs to be acknowledged to know it has served its purpose of alerting you to something, so it can be released of its duty. The less you listen the more it speaks in increasingly annoying language (physical / chemical symptoms).

2. Focus on the purpose – not just the trigger

When trying to understand emotions, there is a tendency to find the root cause. Again this is a symptom of our analytical / rational minded corporate cultures. I don’t mind that, if it is not the only focus in integrating emotions into your data set.

When something or someone triggers a disagreeable emotion in us, we might have a tendency to point the finger and say : “you make me [add here the emotion you are feeling]”. In reality, the person or event is just one stimulus amongst the very many constant stimuli of life. Now you have to own your emotional process and realize that you are solely responsible for responding emotionally to this particular stimulus.

You might disagree with me and that’s ok, but if you choose to own your emotional process then you can be more empowered to change it, hence dealing better with the stimuli you will certainly be confronted with everyday.

Understanding that  “it’s all about you AND it’s not about you” is a key step in not overly focusing on the trigger. Now this might be a challenging one but stick with me for a bit:

– “It’s all about you” means that you reacting to this specific stimulus (someone criticizing your hair, your work or your parenting, an organizational change, a political decision, #insert here life happening#) is “yours”. You own, you are responsible for your mental and emotional processes.  I know you can argue that these were constructed since birth by society, parents, teachers etc. And yes you are right, but at the end of the day, do you wish to own these or do you prefer to see yourself as a pure product of society and be a victim, a drifter on the ocean of life? You might not have much power in life, but your thoughts can be your own. And if your thoughts are your own, then so are your emotions. So do not say “you make me sad” but “I feel sadness when you …”

– “It’s not about you” needs to be understood in the way we interpret the world as acting intentionally for or against us. If you understand the previous statement (it’s all about you) then when someone talks, gives an opinion, criticizes you, or even praises you, you have to understand that it has little to do with you but a lot to do with them, their perspective on you, their belief system and values… So the external triggers you may have (someone saying something about you) has to be understood as about them and not you, even if language indicates it is about you.

Now I may have lost you here, and that’s ok. This is a challenging paradox, that you might need some time to experiment with, and that requires taking a step back and a bucketful of self-honesty. I’m still struggling with this one ;o)

Once you can stop overly focusing on the trigger of your emotions and stop finger pointing, then the purpose  and the message of the emotion (see tip #1) might come clearer and become useful.

3. Emotional gym practice – be gentle with yourself

When working in emotionally unhealthy cultures, it seems difficult to change anything on your own. You may think that the task is way too big. And you are probably right. However, do not underestimate how some small changes can impact your environment.

I always recommend to start small and take baby steps in changing a behavior, as it is much more realistic. Even a small change in yourself can have a big impact on your working relationships.

Here’s an example:

A Business Unit Director used to be angry at his teams because they were not proactive enough. He felt alone, unsupported and bore the whole weight of decision making. During the training I was facilitating, he realized that his own behavior was not encouraging his teams to speak up. So he made one small change: instead of venting his frustration at the start of a meeting, he started to ask questions to his teams and give them space to be proactive. He had to have the discipline to practice this small step consistently to enable his teams to adapt and rise to this new challenge.

He did not try to change them directly but created a more favorable environment for them to display pro activity. He showed vulnerability by asking questions and gained the support he needed by being with his emotion (anger, sadness and frustration) rather then assuming he was alone and taking everything on.

My point is that resistance is futile, being with your emotion can be, if rightly acknowledged and channeled, very powerful and a great source of satisfaction.

When I say be gentle with yourself, I mean this is a new practice that requires discipline, motivation, effort and resilience. Like practicing a new sport, you need time to build the muscles, the reflexes. So be patient with yourself and others: everyone has their own journey and struggles with their own stuff. Everyone can be a trigger, a source of insights, an opportunity to know yourself better.

Building an emotionally healthy culture

If you want the powerful effects of emotions for your innovation strategies or for people engagement, it starts with individuals, and groups of individuals being more emotionally aware and treating themselves and others with kindness. Which implies reversing old beliefs about the corporate cut-throat environment. Then emotions can start being useful: connect with customers and markets, trigger insights and generate innovation scenarios, gather intrapreneurs for constructive  changes.

Many corporations have included some form of emotional intelligence training for their managers and leaders, and this is great. But changing a culture goes beyond a few training sessions. This is not just another manager skill, it is a cultural pilar to erect, reinforce and nurture.

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