Leaders: Ignore feelings at work at your peril

We don’t leave our feelings at the front door when we leave for work or (if WFH) switch on our device to start our working day.

As humans we are a hubble-bubble of a range of feelings. From energising, buzz-inducing, pleasure-boosting positive emotions to head-thumping, gut-cringing, toe-curling negative ones.

We can’t help it.

Leaders ignore the powerful drive of emotions at work at their peril.

How people feel about being at their place of work, with their work colleagues and their immediate boss can make a huge difference to whether an individual is praying for it to be Friday (or whenever they finish their working shift) versus actually looking forward to Monday or the start of their next shift at work. 

But “Shuuuush!” Don’t mention the ‘F’ word at work. It can open up a whole Pandora’s box of ‘stuff’ that many don’t want to set free – too fearful of the potential consequences.

The honest truth is though that we ought to. Several sociological and psychological studies have shown that positive emotions at work enhance attention, a sense of pleasure and trust in others, and reduces fear and worry. (A feeling of ‘we are in this together’). They also produce superior physical and mental health, and state of well-being.

As if well-being hasn’t gone right up the workplace agenda in these pandemic times.

Employee well-being is a factor that organisations are, thank goodness, increasingly focused on, particularly given the effects of high stress work environments and our recent experiences over the last two years. If that wasn’t enough, the cost to the UK economy of stress related work absence is estimated in the billions.

We also know that a sense of emotional connection, like trust, is a significant driver of employee engagement. The majority of studies investigating the effect of emotions on workplace performance note that fully engaged employees express feelings of enthusiasm, empowerment, confidence and appreciation based on their interactions with their colleagues and their immediate line manager. A recent Harvard Business School study showed that more than pay rises or promotions, employees want to feel that their input is valuable to, and valued by, their immediate boss and the organisation. All these create emotional connections.

When I reviewed other studies on engagement I found that this emotion-based engagement was really significant. 

Employees who feel negative emotions are disengaged nearly ten times more than employees who feel positive emotions at work.

Only 10% of people who report generally experiencing negative emotions at work, also report themselves as fully engaged. 48% said they were fully disengaged.

By contrast, 52% of people who report themselves generally experiencing positive emotions at work, also say they are fully engaged. Only 5% said they were disengaged at work.

Talking about how we actually feel, and want to feel, at work is a really important thing. Brave is the team leader who actually asks the question, but the benefits can be enormous.

Now, really effective leaders are engaging their teams in powerful and insightful conversations that explore and share the teams answer to those questions.

Teams can determine what’s emotionally important to them and how they can behaviourally sustain mostly positive emotions at work. They can explore and land the behavioural principles that create team cohesion and ‘check-in’ with each other in non-threatening ways.

Conversations can be insightful and surprising when team members share what emotions their success is dependent on.

And the method for holding these team conversations is surprisingly simple too. A facilitated process using a deck of cards that gives expression to everyone’s feelings.

What two positive feelings did you feel last week at work? How did they come about?

A simple way of soliciting conversations with team members about how they are feeling or want to feel is to hold a weekly check-in with them. It’s purpose is to solicit identification and reflection about the emotion, and insight about how the feelings were triggered.

A simple question like “Looking back on your last week, what two positive feelings most stand out for you? What happened to make you feel that way?” The answers will be surprising and enlightening. Leaders can get a real insight into some of the drivers and motivations of their team members and indication of where they get a sense of satisfaction from.

But leaders and team members need to understand that negative emotions are also part of our make up as human beings. Even though we might want to avoid them at work, we have to recognise that we might feel frustrated, annoyed, disappointed, lost etc from time to time.

The same reflective question about the previous week, now focused on two negative emotions, can also be insightful.

In the first instance, they shed light for the team leader that they were felt. This might not have been obvious at the time. In the second, it raises useful information about what is happening at work that might trigger less than positive feelings – and maybe help find ways of avoiding those triggers.

“Reflecting on last week, what two less positive feelings did you have? What happened to trigger them?”

This simple check-in with team members while valuable in its own right, does something else.

It begins to build a climate of empathy and compassion that recognises people for their differences, their motives, their gifts and their vulnerabilities.

It also builds relationships of understanding and mutual respect, and amplifies a sense of cohesion that leads to greater engagement and commitment to the team.

There are other things that a team leader can do to deploy greater emotional intelligence with the team, but that’s for next time.

Stay tuned . . . .

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