Being human at work – how to deal with emotions in the workplace

Anja van Beek explains how to deal with emotions so that they mix well with the workplace.

By Anja van Beek, agile talent strategist, leadership expert and executive coach

“It is not the fittest that survive but the ones that can best adapt to their environment,” writes Charles Darwin in The Origin of Species. Over the last few months, we have heard many insights and tips on being more agile and adaptive at work.

But what about emotion in the workplace? How do we navigate emotions when we feel overwhelmed by the changes and expectations in the hybrid world of work? Think about emotional agility, consider how emotionally agile you are, and consider ways to increase this.

What is emotional agility?

Susan David coined the term “emotional agility”. It is defined as “an individual’s ability to experience their thoughts, emotions and events in a way that doesn’t drive them in negative ways, but instead encourages them to reveal the best of themselves.” Another way to describe it is “a process that enables us to navigate life’s twists and turns with self-acceptance, clear-sightedness, and an open mind”.

This means that we are mindfully aware and can answer these four points in every moment: What am I observing? What am I thinking? What am I feeling? What do I need and require in this moment? By answering and being clear on these four questions, you can move from reaction to consciously responding in a way that is more human, while building stronger relationships and getting better results. 

Many of my clients are asking how they can navigate situations where team members display emotional lows at work. They don’t feel equipped to handle this, and also experience this themselves.

What to do when my team member gets emotional?

Firstly, in a situation where a colleague is emotional, resist the temptation to give advice, try to solve the problem, or fix it. Instead, acknowledge their emotions by saying, “l see you are upset.” Create a moment and allow space without judgement for them to share what they are experiencing.

If you can remain curious in the conversation, it sends a message that what they are sharing is important. This also contributes to creating an environment where people can (safely) express their emotions.

It is important to remind yourself that your non-verbal cues and what your body language communicates are both critical for this person to feel safe and heard. At the end of the discussion, show appreciation and thank the colleague for trusting you and sharing their feelings.

How can we epitomise emotional agility?

Here are two tips to strengthen your emotional agility. Firstly, it’s all about the words we use. A practical tip is simply to change your words from “I’m lonely,” to “I notice that I’m feeling lonely.” Separating yourself from the emotion and acknowledging it for what it is, is an important step in recognising, understanding and managing your emotions.

Secondly, the concept of emotional numbing. Brene Brown describes this as any activity that you use to numb your feelings so that you don’t experience vulnerability. Her research found that there is no such thing as selective emotional numbing. In life, there is a full spectrum of human emotions and when we numb the dark, we numb the light.

As the ultimate optimist, I had to learn to face (and feel) my pain and hurt to fully experience joy and love.

What to do when you are triggered at work

When identifying emotions, go beyond the six universal emotions of anger, fear, joy, surprise, disgust and sadness. Use the emotional wheel  (provided below) to identify and increase your emotional granularity. Instead of being angry at your manager because he/she interrupted you for the third time when you are speaking, you may identify feeling frustrated or annoyed at their behaviour.

This differentiation of emotions will support you in future to better recognise the emotion and be more flexible and agile in regulating it.

A practical step is to pause and WAIT (What Am I Thinking?). Taking a pause provides us with new perspectives. To be mindfully present, we can observe what is going on in the moment. This provides an opportunity to choose a better response other than judging others or doubting yourself.

Being more human at work

It is possible to be more human at work, and to bring your whole self to the workplace – emotions and all. Here are two pointers to do this in a healthy way

  1. Establish healthy boundaries

What am I seeing and hearing, what am I feeling, what do I need at this moment? Be curious and become conscious of what is going on in the moment.

When the other person responds, put your ego aside. Start to listen actively to their views. Being empathetic and stepping into someone else’s shoes allows us to embrace other realities and perspectives.

The next time you are triggered, don’t judge the other person nor yourselves. Move from judging others to empathy and from doubting yourself to self-assertion. When you find yourself in a moment of conflict, move to collaboration by sharing openly what is going on for you at that moment and inviting the other person to do the same.

  1. Taking regular, quality breaks equates to getting more done

How often do you take small breaks during your day? Is your calendar filled with back-to-back meetings? Do you start in the early mornings, work consistently during the day and, due to workload, only stop later than usual? Are you now working during what used to be commuting time in addition to a full day’s work?

Being human at work means we understand that there should be a balance between stress (energy expenditure) and recovery (energy renewal). It is important to remind yourself that being in “survival mode” is a red flag for any individual. Being mindfully present in the moment also supports us to be aware of what is really happening in that specific time and instead of reacting, we can choose a different response.

After many months of working while being at home, we now have more tools to connect with teams and new ways of working in place. Another critical aspect to discuss as a team is the topic of breaks. The science seems to suggest that the best practice is a 17-minute break for every hour.

One of my corporate clients commented that their workday is not eight to five anymore, it is now eight to 10 – in the evening! This is not sustainable, and we need to be deliberate in taking care of ourselves. “Busyness” is not a badge to earn; it will hold you back.

To be human at work, create new habits to take short, regular breaks. As a team, you should hold one another accountable and normalise taking these.