Sorry team, I am human! How bottling up feelings impacts work productivity

I would like to explore with you the impact of unaddressed feelings in the workplace. If this topic is new to you, this is a great place to start. Talking about one’s feelings at work for some seems like a scary, a stupid and unwelcome thing to do. Here’s why the opposite is true and a few tips to keep in mind.

Let me start by sharing a story a good Kenyan friend of mine told me about growing up. He painted the picture for me how boys receive constant reminders from all sides that men don’t show feelings. “First your mum beats you, then when you cry she beats you again for crying. It’s not a single incident, it happens in diverse forms: neighbours, teachers, aunts etc. And now society blames men for not being in touch with their feelings”.

So how does it manifest itself when a large proportion of society grows up like this? Maybe some of this sounds familiar: “I think he got up on the wrong side of the bed, that he’s behaving like this” or “Look at that one, kila saa anacatch mafeelings”. (slang for s/he is always catching feelings). If you look at these statements, you’ll see that they’re judgemental. But mostly they’re vague and simplistic: Avoiding to explore the complex connection between a human’s inner world (what they think, feel and need) and their outer world (what they say and do).

Well, it doesn’t have to be that way. I have met men and women who explain their inner world to large groups in clear and concise language as if it was the most normal thing to do, who use lingo like “triggers”, “emotions”, “needs”, “explore”, and discuss how to use this as a powerful tool for collaboration, leadership and decision making. Coming from a science background, trained in the language of process, facts and proof, I was blown away.

I believe that many people are actually somewhere in between: We are aware of our feelings, but not sure how to talk about them (write about them on Social Media, sure… but talk?!). We believe that such expressions won’t be welcome. Unsure how to deal with the volcano of emotions inside us. Worried of repercussions of airing out how I fell. At the same time this generation doesn’t see the point anymore of being a different person during and outside working hours.

We also expect a lot from our colleagues and bosses: Be a real human, make me feel welcome and connected, be deep and credible, but don’t dare to overstep my emotional boundaries!

Two important reasons why this is relevant in the workplace:

  • Feelings are the messengers about our inner world. Messengers where our needs are being fulfilled (positive feeling) or not being fulfilled (negative feeling). Ignoring these messengers or not sharing their message with those around you, will eventually impact on your behaviour and productivity and thus on project and business performance. Typical outcomes are loss of interest in the work, people choosing not to stretch in their assignments or sharing their views and knowledge, decline in collaboration, silo behaviour between departments etc. On the contrary where thoughts, feelings and needs are shared and explored in conversation, we are more likely see increased motivation and commitment, collaboration and internal innovation ability. These effects have been researched and studies show scary numbers, for example one by Gallup saying that only 1 out of 3 employees are fully engaged at work.
  • You can’t bottle up negative feelings and thoughts forever. You’ll either get physically sick, turn cynic (which might get you fired) or explode in an unsuitable moment, unable to verbalize your thoughts and leaving others clueless of “what just happened”.

Instead, a healthy work environment makes space for exploring the thoughts, feelings and needs, that are hidden in each of us.

If you want to try, please have a look at these few basic principles:

  • Expand your vocabulary to talk about feelings. What else is there beyond happy and sad, frustrated and excited? The more precise you can be in identifying and describing what is happening inside you, the more alive you feel and the more connected others will become to you.
  • Point out positive situations and mention positive feelings at least 5 times as often as negative feelings. Most office environments need that! (In fact it’s been quoted as recipe for lasting marriages since the 1990s)
  • When you mention positive feelings without context, it creates a good atmosphere, but you are not creating a lasting change. “I am happy that we are making money”. The power of mentioning to others how an external event created your internal reaction lies in them understanding you better. “When I see you negotiating hard and successfully with this client, I feel hopeful because I start imagining how you and I can work together better as a team to fulfil our financial goals”
  • Mentioning negative feelings without mentioning a concrete request can be interpreted as blaming language. “Today I am very frustrated with our low sales numbers (turn back to staring at my screen or going for a smoke)”. Avoid this, especially when you are in a leadership role. Much better is “Today, I feel very frustrated with our low sales numbers. I would like to hold a spontaneous meeting tomorrow to discuss what we can do about it. If you want to join in, let me know!”

Let us know about your experiences in implementing some of these tips!

At edge we support our clients bringing in some of this powerful language and making it part of “how we work around here”. Within ninety minutes workshop time you hear a manager say: “I feel much more connected with you all than in the last months!”

If you want to find out more, get in touch!