Emotions at Work

The Role of Emotions in the Digital Age Workplace

Written by Emily Thornton and Heidi Marshall

It’s widely acknowledged that the world of work has been transformed since the digital revolution. Everything moves so fast, and companies are forced to continually innovate and adapt in order to survive. The shifted focus from ‘efficiency’ to ‘adaptability’ has a huge impact on both employees and leaders, and on how teams operate.

Looking back at the industrial age, it’s easy to feel as though we’ve moved on from the belief that people are no more than ‘cogs in the machine.’ The prevailing wisdom from people such as Frederick Taylor, who pioneered the “Scientific Management” system, was focused on efficient execution by micro-managing every small element of a process like ‘clockwork.’ Now we talk a lot about ‘knowledge workers’ and emphasise the importance of human creativity in the face of increasing AI and digital technology. But have we truly explored what the ‘people’ part of work involves, and most especially, the role of emotion? Because, despite the incredible advances, organisations aren’t only made up of computers or software or the latest technology. Ultimately they’re still made up of human beings, with all the feelings and emotions that entails.

So what role do emotions play at work – and what are the challenges and opportunities associated with them?

Our personal experience has often been that emotions at work come with a stigma. People are praised for stoicism, are openly told to ‘leave emotions at the door’ and that ‘emotions don’t belong in the workplace.’ Showing emotion at work is risky, almost as though being professional is somehow synonymous with being non-emotional. This can even be the case with positive emotions, such as expressing excitement being categorised as childish. When it comes to the role of emotion in leadership, there is often more pressure for leaders to control their emotions and put on a type of ‘work mask.’

Emotion in leadership is particularly interesting, when you consider it from the gender perspective. Lisa Feldman Barrett describes the challenge when it comes to women in leadership roles. Her study found that if a woman displays emotion, she is generally seen (by both men and women) as unsuitable for leadership roles or unstable in some way, but if she doesn’t express emotion, she is viewed as untrustworthy and non-empathetic, rather than level-headed. Another study, cited in the British Psychological Society, provides evidence that men are judged more harshly for crying, which is seen as a stereotypically female emotion, whereas people are more sympathetic towards women and don’t see it as a reason to question their competence. These types of stereotypes affect both genders in how the expression of emotions affects how we evaluate people’s capacity for leadership. To show or not to show emotion appears a dilemma.

The risk of rejecting emotion

There is certainly a swathe of evidence to show the negative impact of emotional suppression. See this Time article which outlines how we are not, and cannot be, in control of how our emotions are triggered. When we ignore those emotions, when we block and avoid how we’re feeling, that’s what can lead to stress, depression and physical illness, which are happening at increasingly high levels. Studies show that when someone is suppressing emotion, there is a rise in their cardiovascular activity. The raised heart rate, increased blood pressure and change in breathing pattern show that the brain and body find the hiding of emotions as a stressor. Our memories are also affected when we deny ourselves emotion. The brain battles to store the memory; while pushing away the very emotion that helps define it.

In the workplace and outside of work, we rightly talk a lot more these days about stress, wellbeing and mental health. With numerous clients, we are talking about how to build resilience to combat this very real threat to our personal happiness and professional effectiveness. We talk about the need to uncover what is causing stress and adopt a team-centric approach to building the capability to bounce back stronger. Emotion, it seems, is a core human trait that we need to respect and see as part of the process of building this resilience.

It’s clear therefore that we deny the fact that human beings are emotional creatures at our peril. Looking at Western philosophy, however, you can start to see why reason has been prized above emotion. Plato, with his wide-reaching influence, saw emotion and rationality in opposition to each other – as ‘two horses pulling in opposite directions.’ This idea is so pervasive, and yet if we consider it from the point of view of biology, a counter-argument from Darwin is that the influence of emotions on our decision-making has survived through natural selection, so they must be of use in some way.

Differentiating feeling of emotion and expression of emotion

To think about what this means for emotions at work, when we unpack further what we mean by ‘controlling’ our emotions, is it actually the expression of emotions, rather than the feelings themselves, that we want to control? This is a subtle difference which is often lost. When someone tells you not to cry, it can easily feel as though they’re telling you not to be sad – which is impossible. You feel the way that you feel. Instead, let’s consider how we can harness and leverage emotion, rather than try to suppress and control. Let’s make the distinction between reaction and response. Your emotions can be triggered, you can be sad or angry or excited, but you can then choose what action you take as a result. It’s only possible to do that, however, if we’re aware of that emotion, if we pause and take the time to acknowledge it.

There is a classic piece of advice to ‘take a deep breath’ when you feel emotional. This engages the parasympathetic nervous system, reducing the ‘fight or flight’ instinct, allowing us to think more rationally, and less instinctively. Exactly what you think in this moment, though, is key. Rather than ‘I need to control myself,’ we can try to listen to the emotion, and explore what it might be telling us. Brene Brown talks extensively about this in her book Dare to Lead, calling this awareness ‘reckoning.’ This involves recognising when you’ve been hooked by an emotion and then, instead of suppressing, getting curious about it. To help with this recognition, she recommends being connected to what’s going on in your body – after all, we call emotions ‘feelings’ because we do physically feel them.

Normalising emotions in the workplace

Leaders have an important part to play here, in normalising emotions in the workplace and modelling vulnerability by showing awareness of their own feelings. If we can see that emotions are useful, that really in the simplest terms, they help us to avoid threats and to enhance pleasure, we can see how they can be of use at work. We talk a great deal about authenticity as a leader, and it’s impossible to be truly authentic if you’re suppressing or ignoring your emotions, as they are central to the human experience. We’d never consider taking the emotions out of any other part of our lives – whether that’s family, friends, hobbies, politics – so why would we do that with our work?

It’s part of the culture change that we need to see if we are to work successfully in this era of fast-pace, complexity, and uncertainty. How do we as leaders facilitate this awakening around what it means to feel, show, and process emotion? It will take courage and trust to build the necessary relationships and foster an environment that lends itself to this level of vulnerability and openness, but as a collective it’s within our power to do that.

Interested in this topic? Look out for a new podcast episode: ‘It’s OK To Feel *Insert Emotion Here*’. We’d love to hear your own opinions!

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