First Things First: Emotions in the Workplace

What do you do when you're upset about something at home and you know you need to focus on work? Do you try to push your emotions aside and tough it out? Paradoxically, when we ignore our emotional responses they poke back up and get in the way. When emotions are acknowledged, people are better able to focus on the task at hand. Esther Derby offers some advice for dealing with the "human stuff."

I recently read some advice suggesting that when employees are stressed or troubled because of situations outside work—the illness of a spouse or child, a divorce, or other personal problem—employees should hide their emotions and pretend to be eager and positive in the office.

I can't endorse that advice. Let me tell you a little story that shows why.

The other day I had a conference call scheduled with a colleague, Alysa. We'd emailed back-and-forth before hand, so we had a rough agenda going into the meeting. It only took a minute to list the 3-4 topics.

"Where should we start?" I asked.

"Let's start with the conference session. No, I mean the consulting proposal. Did you send me email about this?" Alysa said.

"Yep, last Tuesday," I said.

"Oh, I guess I lost it. Sorry, I'm sort of spacey today."

"That's OK," I said. "I have it right here," and started listing the open items.

"Did I tell you my husband's been laid off?" Alysa blurted.

"No…sounds like we should talk about that first," I said. "Tell me what happened."

Alysa told me about the layoff, how she was trying to give her husband, Harvey, support, and what Harvey was doing to find a new job. She was feeling anxious, worried, and angry. Mostly I listened and offered a few words of commiseration. After about five minutes, Alysa had finished her story.

"Ok, I can concentrate on our agenda now," Alysa said.

We continued our meeting, accomplished what we set out to, and ended the meeting on time.

Here's the paradox: If I had tried to force Alysa to stick to the agenda from the start, and told her that Harvey's layoff was off-topic, we would not have gotten our work done. Alysa wouldn't have been fully present or focused. By taking a few minutes to acknowledge what was happening, we were able to move on to productive work.

We all deal with the potential for people to be emotionally preoccupied at work every day. It may be an argument with a spouse or a sick child. Perhaps the school has called to report that Junior is up for detention. All sorts of events outside of work come with us when we enter the office door. Work events can cause emotional responses, too. Mergers, reorganizations, new bosses, downsizing, and even mundane events can create emotional situations. We don't turn off our human-ness or our emotions when we come to work.

For the organization, ignoring emotions takes a toll on productivity—people are distracted and unable to focus. For individuals, it adds to stress and alienation.

Now, I don't believe that we should let it all out at work, even when we know our coworkers really well. Consider the context and recognize that we are all human, and our emotions are part of what and who we are. We need to manage our emotions, not hide, fake, or ignore them. Deal with the "human stuff" first, and it will be easier to get the work done.

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