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No Hard Feelings: Emotions At Work (And How They Help Us Succeed) by Liz Fosslien & Mollie West Duffy

Laetitia Vitaud

Editor in Chief

It has long been assumed that emotions and the workplace are two notions that do not go together, that emotions have to be suppressed and that expressing them would be seen as unprofessional. In fact emotions naturally do belong in the workplace. In effective teams, emotional intelligence is a recipe for belonging, well-being and success. 

No Hard Feelings: Emotions At Work (And How They Help Us Succeed) (2019) is a must-read guide designed to help employees and employers understand the rules of emotion at work so they can bring their best selves to work. Liz Fosslien is a marketing and design consultant whose illustrations make the book more visual and fun. Mollie West Duffy is an organisational designer at innovation firm IDEO who’s written regularly about organisations for Fast Company, Quartz, and Stanford Social Innovation Review. Using behavioural economics, psychology and their own experience, the authors show the modern workplace is an emotional minefield “filled with confusing power structures and unwritten rules”, which many people don’t know how to navigate. 

“Modern work requires an ability to effectively harness emotion—but most of us have never learned how to do this in our professional lives”. “As we start to recognize the importance of soft skills, we’re left wondering: Is it possible to be too soft? How much emotion can we express before we come across as unprofessional? What if our “authentic self” is overwhelmed and anxious—should we be open about these feelings?”

– Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy in No Hard Feelings: Emotions At Work (And How They Help Us Succeed). 

The future of work is emotional 

According to Fosslien and West Duffy, the workplace is a minefield of emotions that we are not equipped to handle. Even though we speak more of “soft skills” and “emotional intelligence” today, few have been trained to become emotionally intelligent. Would-be managers do not learn it at Harvard Business School. Yet the ability to understand and leverage emotions could well be the number one factor of success for a manager. Emotional intelligence (EQ), defined as “the ability to recognise and understand both how you and how those around you feel” is “a better predictor of success in the workplace than IQ”.

There’s reason to believe that EQ will be increasingly important in the future. Among the top skills listed by employers are the ability to work on a team and communicate with others, which both require EQ. Also as we place a higher premium on meaningful work, “we increasingly let what we do define who we are.” Not understanding our emotions could be more of a liability in that context. In fact, feelings can be seen as “guideposts” from which there is much to learn. 

“Be less passionate about your job” and you’ll be healthier

Caring about a job is a positive thing, but caring too much is unhealthy: “it makes small problems seem exceptional and throwaway remarks feel appalling”. The healthier approach is to let employees care a bit more about themselves, by going on vacation, taking days off, taking numerous breaks, maintaining personal relationships that will help them keep a healthy emotional distance from their job. Abundant research shows a team of people who have a healthy work-life balance will also be more productive and creative.

In the US (and to a lesser extent elsewhere too), the pressure to always appear positive and content is an emotional drain. “The pressure to be perky is so great that the National Labor Review Board ruled employers cannot force employees to always be cheerful”. But we ought to change this culture and encourage people to stop feeling bad about feeling bad. 

The key to not letting emotions ruin health is to focus on the here and now. Psychologist Martin Seligman identified the dangerous “3 Ps” that we need to let go of after a negative event: 

  • Personalization (“it’s all my fault”), 
  • Pervasiveness (“It’ll ruin everything”) 
  • and Permanence (“it’ll always be like this”).

Identifying the 3 Ps helps to let go of what we can’t control.

Motivation requires inspiration

Motivation is often “a mess of chicken-and-egg relationships”“Have you stopped making progress because you’re bored, or are you bored because you stopped making progress?”. The authors list 4 main reasons why people lack motivation: they lack control over their work, they don’t find their work meaningful, they don’t learn enough anymore, or they don’t like their coworkers. 

The best thing a manager can do to sustain employee motivation is to give employees more autonomy: by defining outcomes rather than processes, asking open-ended questions (“How might we…?) to signal there’s more than one answer to a question, holding office hours. Another solution is to connect work with a compelling purpose. And to always provide employees with abundant opportunities to learn new things. “In today’s workplace, continuing to learn isn’t optional—it’s a necessity”: as predicted by the World Economic Forum, more than 50% of today’s children will work in jobs that don’t yet exist.

“Our real motivation isn’t a what, it’s a who.” The relationships employees have with their bosses and colleagues often matter more than other factors. A manager can help create an emotional culture where relationships are more positive and prevent silos from forming. Motivation can be boosted.

Good decisions always rely on examining emotions

“There’s a science to listening to your gut”. In fact emotions aren’t mysterious, mystical things that must be ignored. They are signals expressed by our second brain: our guts. They are the product of expertise, experience and quick information processing (what’s known as “felt knowledge”) and therefore valuable signals to listen to! 

However not all emotions are valuable when making a decision. There are two types of emotions: those that are relevant and those that are irrelevant. The relevant emotions are related to the decision (for example, the fear of moving into a new place) whereas irrelevant emotions have nothing to do with the decision (for example, there was too much traffic in the morning and it’s followed by anger, which might affect a decision to hire somebody or not). 

“Keep relevant emotions, toss irrelevant emotions”, say Fosslien and West Duffy. Relevant emotions are “your internal navigation system” whereas irrelevant emotions are a form of pollution. Anticipation, anxiety (the fear of more fear to come), regret, and envy reveal interesting information. For example, “envy reveals your values—if you’re honest with yourself”. Irrelevant emotions on the other hand need to be put aside. Often, the best way is to wait before making a decision. Or to indulge in some physical activity (a run, a yoga session…). Too much anger or excitement do not make for good decisions.

There’s one area where emotion should never be part of the equation—hiring: “You should never rely on your gut when hiring”. “The problem with relying on emotion in hiring decisions is that we end up hiring people who make us feel good”. But the nice feeling we get from speaking to someone has nothing to do with that person’s ability to do the job. We are just too biased to base our hiring decisions on our emotions. The most important thing is to try and curb our biases, not lean into them. (See our must-reads Who: The A Method for Hiring and What Works: Gender Equality by Design).

Psychological safety comes first

The best teams are always those who operate in an environment of psychological safety where they feel free to suggest ideas and take risks without being embarrassed by the group. (See our must-read The Culture Code on the same subject.) The authors list a number of ideas to create such an environment:

  • Ask clarifying questions to make it okay for others to do the same (for example, when somebody uses jargon or an acronym).
  • Suggest a bad ideas brainstorm for team members to throw out purposefully absurd ideas. The exercise takes pressure off and helps people be more adventurous.
  • Create team agreements, lists of ground rules for how people should treat one another.
  • Accept that there will be fights and make them good ones: by understanding your biases, inviting structured criticism, conducting postmortems.
  • Let go of the jerks even if they seem to be high performers: “Jerks undermine psychological safety by preying on vulnerability and leaving others feeling belittled and deenergized”.

Make your feedback specific and actionable 

Feedback should help the employee do better. If it doesn’t, it’s useless. There are three simple rules for giving effective feedback: focus on something very specific, help find a concrete way to improve (or an alternative), and remember that the way you give feedback matters a lot.

For example “Your email could have been better” is not specific enough and does not offer a concrete way to improve. Compare it with “The second sentence in your email restated the first and should be deleted”, which is specific and offers a solution.

You should also ask your employees how they want to receive feedback. Some people prefer in-the-moment feedback to immediately make improvements in the middle of a task. Others prefer specific feedback in writing so they have the time to process it. Some people (introverts, mostly) are uncomfortable with public praise while others love it.

“Emotional culture cascades from you: why small actions make a big difference”

In every human group there’s a phenomenon at play called emotional contagion. We tend to laugh around laughing people and feel sad among crying people. Emotions go viral. They don’t happen in a vacuum. Every company has its own emotional culture. “Emotional culture is built on norms, the unspoken rules that dictate what you’re allowed to feel and express”.

It’s generally healthy to encourage some level of emotional expression because in organisations where compassion and gratitude are discouraged, there are “higher turnover rates”. Here’s how to encourage healthy emotional expression:

  • Acknowledge personal lives: understanding what people are going through makes it easier to treat them with empathy.
  • Share meals: “eating together has a long, primal tradition as a kind of social glue,” explains Cornell professor Kevin Kniffin.
  • Celebrate the emotions you value: for example, thank people for their kind gestures if you value them.
  • Create a sense of belonging with microactions—small positive actions you can take, like: having coffee with a person you don’t know well, helping a new employee get to know others, not multitasking when somebody speaks to you…
  • Focus on onboarding: a warm welcome goes a long way.
  • Assign “culture buddies” (like Buffer) to help new hires understand the culture.

Rédaction : Laetitia Vitaud

Illustration : Pablo Grand Mourcel

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