This article is the third entry in Susan Mazza's three-part series, "Leading for Employee Engagement." In this series, Susan explores leadership techniques managers can deploy to help foster employee engagement on their teams. Check out the other entries in the series here.
When it comes to work, we don't usually talk much about emotions. The phrase, "There's no crying in baseball" from the movie "A League of Their Own" comes to mind. Emotions, after all, are a messy part of dealing with people. There seems to be a belief that the fewer emotional people are in business, the better.
There are, of course, variations depending on your company culture. Excited, passionate and happy are usually welcomed, at least to a point. But what about negative emotions such as anger, sadness and frustration? Expressing these emotions, especially intensely, can make people very uncomfortable so shouldn't these emotions be kept to yourself, or at least reserved to less public displays?
The quick answer is (if you want to foster employee engagement): no. Positive is not always good and negative is not always bad. Both sentiments are normal, natural expressions and both can contribute enormously to your success if you can learn how to listen well as a leader for what really matters and for the commitment behind even the most difficult-to-hear complaints.
Avoiding the emotional pitfalls
There is a potentially big pitfall in encouraging both the expression of positive emotions and the suppression of negative emotions: By closing off one end of the emotional spectrum, you potentially stifle the intensity of people's engagement. Engaged employees sometimes get even more frustrated or angry than those who are less engaged because they care so much and are more deeply affected by setbacks.
Asking people to feign excitement and optimism when what they are really feeling is knocked down and disappointed is a sure recipe for disengagement. It's also true that positivity, passion and optimism generated on pretense will inevitably be short lived at best.
Consider that one of your primary roles as a leader is to raise the emotional state of those you lead. But to do this, you must meet people where they are at this moment, rather than force them to be where you want them to be on-demand. By listening openly to people at their low points, you can help fuel their passion for contributing to a better future. There is trust to be gained from having honest conversations rather than politically correct exchanges void of emotion that are disconnected to the employee's reality.
It may seem counterintuitive, but when you make it safe for people to express their frustration, disappointment and fear, you can actually release that negative emotion and make room for possibility and optimism once again.
Complaining with honesty
Having facilitated focus groups designed to initiate organizational change with thousands of people over 20 years I have seen this phenomenon play out over and over. The people who hire me often start out by saying things such as, "I don't want this to be a "complaint session," but they soon learn that stifling the complaints only serves to strengthen the grip of those complaints. Yet it is in giving people the freedom to openly express what is not working, as well as what is frustrating and upsetting to them, that they often naturally shift the conversation at some point to what can be done to make things better.
The context for these kinds of conversations is, however, extremely important. The purpose of inviting people to share what they believe isn't working or to share their upsets and disappointments must be grounded in an intent to honestly explore the gap between where you are and where you want to be. There is also a difference between getting something off your chest so you can move forward, and wallowing in blame and staying fixated on a past you cannot change. The caution here is to beware of confusing the two because the fear of the latter causes us to shut down the former that will lead to constructive, enlivening, engaging conversations.
Walk through the door
Emotions are a leader's door into authentic, passionate engagement in anything, including work. By engaging with people where they really are, whether it is excited or disappointed, happy or frustrated, is the key to tapping into people's emotions and opening the door to engagement. It may not be comfortable but busting through the status quo and achieving the remarkable rarely is.