Opening Pandora's Box of Emotions Is Actually Good for Work

Let's talk about managing disappointment. I don't mean disappointment in a movie or new restaurant. I mean bone crushing, can't get out of bed disappointment in achieving a big dream. When you try everything to conquer a big goal and it falls flat.

I'll tell you personally. One of my goals is to do a TEDx talk. I've been working on this goal for a year. I did my research, talked to people, asked for advice, made my pitches and truly thought I had a chance for two locations.

Rejection # 2 Left Me Devastated

When the first location rejected me because I didn't live in that town, I was disappointed but didn't give up. When the 2nd location rejected me, I was devastated. I had cultivated this relationship for a year, with positive indications along the way. I was mad, sad, frustrated, embarrassed, ashamed, dejected...a year of work for nothing.

I Moped. I Disengaged From Work. I Couldn't Focus.

At first I moped around and made snarky side comments to anyone who would listen. Then I disengaged from work, unable to focus because I was feeling so many emotions.

Then a leader approached me and asked me how I was doing. She mentioned my disengagement and asked me what was wrong. It opened a flood. I shared all my emotions in a torrent. My hands flew around non-stop. My cadence was lightning fast. My tone went up and down. My eyes became huge. And then it was over. In just 90-seconds, I let it all out.

And Then It Was Over

Then she said, "Wow. You worked hard for a year and feel rejected. That's a tough spot to be in."
I replied, "It is. And it stinks."
"I get it. It sucks."

The Catharsis of Expressing My Emotions Released Creativity and Motivation

After letting it all out, I didn't feel defeated anymore. My creative thinking went back into full gear. I was once again motivated to continue my quest to become a TEDx speaker. And I will!

Here's how the rest of the conversation went:

"So what do you want to do about it?"
"I want to take another crack at it. I have a powerful message the people need to hear."
"How can I help?"
"Can you hold me accountable every month and ask me how it's going?"
"Absolutely."

She Could Have Told Me To Get My Act Together. But She Did Not.

This leader could have avoided this conversation. She could have told me to get my act together. Instead, she felt comfortable letting emotions show up, knowing they'd eventually dissipate.

It Turns Out Motivation Was Lurking in Pandora's Emotional Box

And they did...in less than five minutes. And my bone-shattering disappointment is the fire to get invited to another TEDx talk.

But unfortunately, that's not the way it goes in most organizations...

Since Americans like to think of themselves as independent, resilient and hardworking, leaders will often deal with work disappointment by saying one of these expressions:

Come on. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.
You'll get over it. Just try harder.
Don't worry. I know you'll get there next time.
Or quoting Thomas Edison: "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."

Do These Statements Actually Help A Person Who Is Feeling Defeated?

While the leader is trying to be supportive, do any of these expressions actually help the person who feels defeated? No. Why? Because finding motivation is an inside job. The only person who can turn disappointment into motivation is the person experiencing that disappointment.

Finding Motivation After a Big Defeat is an Inside Job

So what should a leader do? Take a page from the script of the movie Inside Out and allow people to feel emotions at work. If you haven't seen the movie, I highly recommend it, even if you don't have children. It follows the story of Riley, an 11-year old girl who moves to San Francisco from Minnesota. By using all her emotions, she leads a richer life than when she only felt the emotion of joy. Adding anger, sadness, fear and disgust to her life gave depth to her move and new experiences.

Feeling Emotions at Work is Important

Why is this an important concept at work? Because we are often told to check our emotions at the door--even bone-crushing disappointment. Yet that's simply not possible, as we literally cannot make decisions and complete tasks devoid of any emotion.

Fact: It's Your Emotions, Not your Intellect Making the Decisions

In fact, neuroscientists have proven that the brain's wiring unquestionably relies on emotion over intellect in decision-making.

Beyond decision making, psychologist Dr. Sharongalor says, "The ability to verbalize emotions improves communication skills, the ability to empathize with others and understanding of social feedback." And guess what? Engagement is reliant on emotions too.

On a practical level, not dealing with employee's emotions can be costly. A study by Mel Fugate and his co-authors, Angelo J. Kinicki and Spencer Harrison, found that businesses suffer when they don't deal with employees' emotional health. They write:

"If employees have emotional reactions and their employers don't pay attention to those reactions, they can withdraw. They are more likely to take sick days, and if their frustration continues to grow they will actually leave their jobs." 

Managers Are Afraid of Opening Pandora's Emotional Box

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I understand the hesitation.... feelings at work can get messy. Managers are afraid of opening Pandora's Emotional Box, fearing that the emotions will overwhelm the situation. Yet there are ways to allow emotions to positively impact work without overwhelming the team. Here are three tips for that:

Three Tips to Let Emotions Positively Impact Work Without Overwhelming the Team:

1. Ask: "Do You Want To Vent, Want Advice, Or Want Coaching?

If someone is emotional and approaches me to talk, I'll ask: "Do you want to vent, advice or coaching?" In other words, do they just want me to listen (vent), my quick advice on a situation or have me ask coaching type questions that'll help them think through the situation? This allows them to make a decision and clarify what they want. Otherwise, I'd just make matters worse by giving advice when they want to vent or asking questions when they want advice.

2. If an Employee Wants to Vent, Set a Time for Two Minutes and Pay Full Attention

If they want to vent, I literally set a time for two minutes and let them vent as much as they want, often egging them on. I can honestly say that when I pay full attention to people when they're venting, they have never gone over two minutes. It's like a balloon was popped...they just fizzle out. Then they take a deep breath and we can move on.

3. Listen to Both Words and Non-Verbal Cues

Finally, truly listening to both their words and their non-verbal cues, with my full attention, often helps them feel the feelings and move on. Why? Because people are desperate to be seen and heard. Listening with full attention will increase their trust in you and help them determine next steps.

4. Hold a Listening Meeting

Holding a listening meeting is a great way for leaders and managers to handle emotions that may otherwise go unchecked. And unchecked emotions tend to fester, causing all kinds of problems from disengagement to downright quitting. But what is it? A listening meeting is when a leader or manager has meetings with various teams to simply sit down and listen. Questions to start the meetings might be, "So how do you feel about this meeting/project?" or simply, "How are you doing?" In this scenario, don't forget tip number three--pay attention to body language. And while you're at it, be sure to note what is being communicated energetically. For tips on how to do this, read about listening here.

Do you notice a trend here? Three of these four tips have to do with listening. Having good listening skills is a powerful tool for leaders who want to make a positive impact on their teams.

Leaders, when is the last time you encountered the emotions of an employee? How did you handle it? Did it make you feel uncomfortable or did you see it as an opportunity to build trust?

What about expressing emotions at work? When is the last time you did that? I urge everyone to try it. You might just find some motivation in Pandora's Emotional Box.

I'd love to hear your positive or negative experiences of either sharing your emotions at work, or managing someone else's emotions. It really can go both ways! Leave me a comment below, send me an email, or let's chat on Twitter.

Anne Loehr is a sought after international keynote speaker, writer, consultant, and trainer. She helps leaders in large organizations connect their everyday decisions today to the future workplace. Her end goal is to help organizations retain their top talent and not only survive, but thrive. To learn more about Anne, check out www.anneloehr.com or follow her on Twitter.