We all know emotions and feelings are a regular part of life… but what happens when those emotions and feelings come out at work?
Human beings are emotional creatures. In fact, our emotional expression is one of the most beautiful parts of being human. Whether it’s feeling happy, sad, fearful, angry, hurt, or something in between, the spectrum of emotions is what makes us who we are.
But there are sometimes when those emotions feel less-than-ideal. For example, when your boss just offered some direct feedback, or your coworker dropped the ball, and you’re left picking up the pieces (and feeling frustrated). Knowing how to manage your emotions at work can be crucial to your career.
So how do we express our feelings at the office—even those feelings we might not feel comfortable with? Is it wrong to express your emotions at work? How can we take responsibility for how we feel, avoid a hostile situation, or worse—a career-ending mistake?
People often worry that it’s wrong to express emotions and feelings at the office. Some feelings might not fit the setting, but there’s a tendency to believe that we should be emotionless while we work. We might downplay our mood because we don’t want to rock the boat, speak up, or argue with a superior or coworker.
What happens when we try to turn off our emotions at work? We sulk home after the day is over, feeling frustrated, downtrodden, and even angry. We might feel like we hate our job. We might slack off or feel the urge to “show them.” Our performance suffers.
Or we store up our anger and frustration until we blow up at an inopportune moment. Suddenly we blurt out something that we later regret. We run out of a meeting, yell at a coworker, or do something else that we feel bad about.
So, while we should certainly not divorce ourselves from emotional expression, we may want to explore how to express our emotions responsibly.
Years ago, prior to grad school, I ran into a situation with my boss. We were in a huge room of people, including the president of the company. Someone raised a question about an issue our company was facing, and my boss blamed the entire problem on me—in front of the room!
In this particular case, the problem wasn’t my fault at all. He was passing the buck to save face. So you can bet I was pissed off! Why? Because getting the brunt of the blame left me feeling hurt and embarrassed.
In those days, I wasn’t as adept at identifying or handling my emotions. I didn’t understand that it was perfectly okay to feel hurt. I didn’t know how I could express it responsibly. I’d been raised to believe that hurt was an emotion that women used to manipulate men. In some ways, I didn’t even know that I was capable of feeling hurt. So when my boss made the misplaced comment, I misidentified my emotion and expressed it as anger.
And I definitely expressed it! I really lost my temper at my boss. I confronted him angrily, and I told him, “If you EVER embarrass me like that again, I’ll embarrass you right back in front of everyone.” Needless to say, this wasn’t the right way to handle it.
Fortunately, my boss was older, wiser, and more mature than me. He responded to my outburst in a calm, measured manner, helping diffuse and downregulate my emotions. We discussed what had happened and why I was so upset. We talked it out, and, in the end, despite my emotionally immature reaction, my boss and I became close. He was a great friend and advocate who later helped my career grow.
Emotions are a critical part of human interaction. They’re linked to the way we communicate and understand each other. So, whenever we’re dealing with other people—a boss, coworkers, or clients—feelings and emotions are bound to arise.
Feelings at work aren’t wrong. Even strong emotions like anger don’t need to be volatile if we learn to express what we’re feeling clearly, openly, and honestly.
Remember, conflict is a natural and vital part of engagement. It’s important we keep conflict productive and focused on outcome and goal, rather than blowing up or placing blame. Conflict is healthy and arises in all relationships. We may think conflict and emotions only apply to our romantic connections, but that couldn’t be further from the truth! Emotions are present in all areas of our lives.
At work, emotions can feel especially strong. After all, our livelihood is often linked closely to our identity. We’re deeply invested in the outcome of each situation. Many of us feel deeply connected to our careers. We see success as a pathway to the life we want to attain. We want to be respected, liked, and valued at work. We want to succeed and do well. Naturally, these common yearnings bring up many emotions surrounding our office interactions.
It’s a hard lesson, especially for some people to accept, but we choose our feelings. We can decide what we want to feel in each interaction. We are solely responsible for our own happiness.
When we blame our boss or our coworkers for our negative feelings, we’re shifting the responsibility of our emotions. To manage emotions at work (and avoid a tense situation or worse), we must recognize that ultimately we’re responsible for our own happiness and satisfaction. If we feel unhappy or dissatisfied, it’s also our responsibility to shift the situation and go for what we want.
This can be a tough pill to swallow, especially if we’ve gotten into the habit of blaming others for our unhappiness. We may be used to taking on a victim identity, where we believe our boss or coworkers are “out to get us” because it takes the responsibility off us. It allows us to blame others for our feelings. But it’s also a disempowering thought. How powerful is it to know that we can make our own happiness and satisfaction happen? We don’t need to wait for the perfect job, the right coworkers, or a better boss. We can decide to have it now!
There are some office relationships where we may feel we can be 100% honest and open. We may even be friends with some people. At the same time, certain words and actions of our coworkers may bother us. This is because each persons’ history, programming, beliefs, thoughts, and feelings come into play (and come with them to work).
So, what is frustrating and annoying to one person may be no big deal to another. It can help to remember that each of us is coming from a different place and bringing along our own unfinished business, but we can try to find commonalities if we really engage and see it as a challenge to overcome. It’s all about what we’re bringing to the table. If we want to build rapport with others, we can do it, no matter how impossible it may seem at first.
It sounds strange, but all our experiences, family, and history come right to the office with us each day. These pieces of our makeup comprise our matrix. We’re all shaped by each experience we encounter in life. We carry that with us when we walk into the room.
It doesn’t matter how old we are—whether we’re right out of grad school or well into our 60s, we bring our unfinished business with us everywhere we go, especially to work. If we had a father who was an authoritarian, we might see our bosses as authoritarian too and find ourselves rebelling under his demands. If our mother was highly controlling, we might balk against the control expressed by others on our team. Each day when we walk in the door to work, these pieces of our internal programming come right along with us.
Rather than throwing up our hands, assuming we’re doomed to repeat the same patterns over and over, we can learn to integrate our expressions of feelings at work so we learn and grow. We can identify the patterns and similarities in our relationships and use this information to help us better connect with others.
For example, a domineering boss presents an excellent opportunity to learn how to advocate for our needs. We may decide to tell our boss how we feel—that we’re afraid, hurt, or angered by their behavior. When we express these feelings straightforwardly, in an open manner, they become more manageable and easier to address.
Most of the time, we can find common ground and even realize that maybe our boss is bringing their own baggage to the table. Rather than stewing about our feelings or exploding, we can bring them to light and work through them together.
As I learned in the situation with my own boss, it’s easy to bring our unfinished business into our interactions at work. I was lucky that my boss helped me learn from the situation rather than simply firing me on the spot for mishandling my hurt.
Not only is it essential and healthy for us to express our emotions at work, but it’s healthy for our whole office as well. We’ll enjoy work more, strengthen connections with our coworkers, and discover more success when we start sharing our feelings at work.
Looking for more ways to find success at work and home? Explore our courses at Wright Now. We have many options to help you learn more about your career, your relationships, and yourself. Get the life you want today—a life of MORE!
The Wright Foundation for the Realization of Human Potential is a leadership institute located in Chicago, Illinois. Wright Living performative learning programs are integrated into the curriculum at Wright Graduate University.