From The Straits Times    |

Have you ever given constructive criticism to a junior colleague, only to have her bawl her eyes out afterwards because she felt that you were personally attacking her? The whole interaction might have also left you feeling guilty for coming across as unkind and callous, but at the same time, there was no real tactful way to share your feedback with her.

And perhaps your relationship with that colleague changed after that interaction. She started avoiding you, or even developed a snarky attitude towards you, and you stopped giving her any more feedback about her work, for fear of upsetting her again. As a result, the quality of her work continued to deteriorate, your team’s performance suffered, and your boss has lashed out at you for not delivering results. 

You soon learnt the hard way that being caught in the middle of temperamental superiors and sensitive juniors can take an emotional toll. So, you stopped expressing yourself whenever you were angry, annoyed, afraid or upset, and put on a stoic face when confronting colleagues or dealing with problems. After all, everyone knows that emotions don’t belong in the workplace. Some, like fear and sadness, are often perceived negatively by companies, and it’s a common belief that people can be penalised for expressing their feelings at work. 

“Business culture has historically perpetuated that uncomfortable feelings have no place in professional settings,” says Zi Kit Toh, founder of Emote, a professional training and coaching company that helps organisations build emotionally intelligent teams.

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“At work, we’re conditioned to be either stoic or eternally optimistic. We’re taught to project confidence and hide powerful emotions, especially bad ones,” he says.

But suppressing our emotions isn’t always possible, and neither is it healthy, as holding our feelings in sometimes does more harm than good. Besides, humans are emotional creatures, and there will be instances where our emotions will influence our decisions and actions. 

We end up working and interacting with different personalities for eight hours a day, five days a week, so it’s no wonder that we also have to deal with one person’s anger issues, another’s depressive tendencies, and so on. This means we have to constantly be aware of our emotions, and make sure that we’re in control of them rather than the other way around.

So how can we express emotions such as sadness, anger and frustration at work without negatively impacting our job and our work relationships? How do we deal with colleagues who have trouble communicating what they feel? And how can we utilise our emotions to be more effective colleagues and leaders? The answer is emotional agility.

Showing emotion at work can be a good thing

“Emotional agility” was coined by Harvard Medical School psychologist Susan David, in her 2017 book of the same name. The term pertains to our capacity to effectively navigate our emotions in a healthy and adaptive way.

Rather than suppressing or impulsively reacting to our emotions, emotional agility enables us to acknowledge and utilise them as valuable information, ultimately achieving a state of balance, says Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist at Dr BL Lim Centre For Psychological Wellness.

Being emotionally agile also enables us to see situations from more than one perspective, adds Emote’s Kit. It allows us to respond with flexibility, and create space between impulse and action, to act in alignment with our values and aims. 

For instance, instead of perpetually getting angry with a junior who keeps missing her deadlines, ask yourself if her lateness might be due to something else – perhaps her workload is too heavy, or she’s experiencing personal problems that might be preventing her from getting work done on time. 

It might help to speak to her to find out what’s going on, and to be empathetic towards her situation – that way you can get to the root of the problem, and come across as understanding and emotionally stable at the same time.

Emotional agility among leaders can help build a positive work culture within the organisation too.  

“When leaders are able to manage their emotions and thoughts effectively, they’re better able to respond in a way that’s aligned with both their personal and organisational values,” says Kit. 

“Instead of getting drawn into the unavoidable ups and downs of the workplace, emotionally agile leaders are able to act calmly and with intention, creating a working environment that’s calm and values-led. 

“Also, when leaders are better at handling their emotions, they’re typically more compassionate towards the emotions of others. They’re better able to provide care and support to the people in their charge, creating safe spaces for them to share their thoughts and feelings, and cultivating emotional agility into their teams and working environments.”

Emotional rigidity – the opposite of emotional agility

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Kit explains that emotionally rigid leaders tend to react impulsively instead of responding with intention. This can turn challenging situations into ones of high stress and emotionality, which can create a culture of constant “fire-fighting” and impulsive actions that don’t necessarily fit with long-term goals.

When her team is under pressure to do well, an emotionally agile leader manages to stay strong, and keep her stress under control for the sake of everyone’s morale. If someone is underperforming, she knows how to motivate them to do better. On the other hand, when faced with the same pressure, an emotionally rigid leader might scream and shout at her team, making everyone feel like they’re walking on eggshells around her. And instead of counselling underperformers, she “ghosts” them to avoid having to communicate with them.  

Furthermore, Dr Lim states that emotionally rigid employees may find it challenging to stay focused and complete tasks when they’re overwhelmed; react impulsively to conflict; maintain a negative attitude towards their work; struggle to connect with others who have different personalities and work styles; and get angry and defensive when they receive negative feedback, thereby making it difficult for managers to provide constructive criticism. 

Such behaviour creates a toxic work environment for everyone involved. This may lead to work dissatisfaction and, ultimately, burnout and high employee turnover. 

“Emotional rigidity can also create a culture of fear and silence or, in other words, a lack of psychological safety,” says Kit. 

“In emotionally rigid environments, employees feel that they cannot safely express their true feelings. This results in an environment of avoidance and suppression, not to mention mental fatigue and emotional strain, because people are trying to suppress their true feelings. Conflict goes unresolved, and emotional needs are never brought up, and thus never addressed, leading to disengagement in the long run.” 

Manage, don’t suppress, your emotions at work

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Being emotionally agile involves cultivating a keen sense of self-awareness, and an ability to comprehend the perspectives of others, says Dr Lim. 

“Learn to cultivate emotional agility by first paying attention to your physical sensations, thoughts and behaviours, so that you can become more aware of what you’re feeling. Once you’ve identified your emotions, try to accept them, even the negative ones. Don’t hide or ignore your feelings. Instead, allow yourself to experience them fully. To better understand your emotions, try to label them. Rather than simply saying ‘I feel bad’, work at identifying specific emotions, such as frustration or disappointment.”

Sometimes, our thoughts about our emotions can be unhelpful, and cause us to hide what we’re feeling. If you find yourself thinking negatively about your emotions, Dr Lim recommends challenging those thoughts by questioning their validity. Once you’re aware of your emotions and thoughts, you can choose how to respond. Ask yourself if you want to act on your emotions or if there’s a more helpful way to respond. For example, if you’re feeling angry, take a few deep breaths before reacting.

“When interacting with individuals of varying personalities, it’s crucial to maintain self-awareness of your own emotions and those of others,” he notes.

“This requires an open-minded approach, where you make an effort to comprehend other perspectives and learn about diverse cultures and backgrounds. Additionally, it’s important to remain adaptable and flexible when working with different people, as what may be effective with one individual may not be so with another. Effective communication is also key, with clear and straightforward language, and a focus on tone of voice and body language.”

You should also remember that there’s a difference between healthy expression and emotional outbursts.

“Expressing emotions involves acknowledging your feelings, and communicating them in a thoughtful and constructive manner, typically through the use of ‘I’ statements (where you come from the angle of your experiences, instead of making judgements or pointing fingers),” says Kit. 

“It should only be done after taking the time to recognise and understand your emotions. Expression lets you share your perspectives, seek understanding or address a specific issue. 

“Outbursts, on the other hand, are emotional reactions that occur without self-awareness or control. They’re often impulsive and intense, and may involve aggressive or confrontational behaviour. 

An outburst is not an effective emotional expression. If you feel an outburst coming on, leave the scene, and take a timeout to consider what you’re feeling, what might have triggered it, and what might be the most appropriate way to express it.”

Once you know what is needed from your teammates, communicate that honestly and respectfully. This will help you manage your feelings more effectively, and also help others receive your message and support you more productively.

Wondering how to put this into practice? Learn how to manage specific scenarios like an overly emotional colleague or an always-angry boss here.