Emotions at Work: Can It Really Be This Simple?

Uncomfortable with emotions at work? In the U.S., many of us would prefer emotionless over emotional. It’s as if bringing the full palette of our feelings to work is anathema to achieving our objectives. If someone starts to get “emotional”, we refer them to HR to solve for their emotional incompetence. If that doesn’t work, we’ll look for “popular” leadership tools to apply the next time an overwhelming feeling like anger, resentment, or enthusiasm shows up in a conversation.

We don’t need to judge any emotion as unacceptable. Emotions are spontaneous physiological responses to what’s happening in the moment.

Emotions are, by their very nature, physiological. Not rational. As in, they have no basis in reason. That doesn’t mean our emotions are, in and of themselves, irrational or unreasonable. They are not right or wrong. They simply are that which predisposes us to action.


I believe the biggest challenge to our emotional competence lies in the way we orient to feelings in our culture. That orientation is neither healthy nor flexible enough to get the job done. It makes “not being emotional” acceptable and equivalent to “not being aware of” our emotions. It keeps us at arms length from what’s emerging in the moment—in ourselves, in the people we work with, and in the relationships we have with each other in which work gets done. Not being aware of our emotions doesn’t mean they’re not present in our conversations. In fact, they’re very much part of the context of our conversations.

Being aware of our emotions is not the same as being “emotional”.

The former is about witnessing feelings. The latter is about being ruled by them.

We can notice our own emotions when they show up. We can name them without judging ourselves for having them. We can ask ourselves what the emotion points to that is important to us. From there, we can choose to respond, rather than react. In this way, our emotions put us “in motion” towards what we care about.

Our emotions belong to us, not anyone else.

Notice there is nothing said here about taking care of someone else’s emotions. This is about taking responsibility for our own emotions. We don’t need to be responsible for what anyone else is feeling. But what we can do as leaders is help others get clarity about what they’re experiencing and what actions they want to take in order to take care of what’s important to them.